Lent is the period of fasting leading up to the feast of Easter, recalling Jesus’ 40-day fast in the wilderness. Western Lent begins on Ash Wednesday and ends liturgically on the morning of Holy Thursday, although Lenten penance continues through Holy Saturday.
In basic terms, Lent is the season before Easter, in the West lasting liturgically from Ash Wednesday until the morning of Holy Thursday. The evening of Holy Thursday begins the The Easter Triduum, which lasts from Holy Thursday to the Evening Prayer of Easter Day. However, Lenten fasting and penance continue until the end of Holy Week, and all of Holy Week is included in the traditional 40 day Lenten fast, despite Lent ending liturgically on Holy Thursday. While Sundays are excluded from the Lenten fasting and abstinence restrictions, and are not numbered in the traditional “40 Days” of Lent, they are still part of the Lenten season, as can be seen from their Lenten themes. Thus, the way Lent is observed in the West can be a bit tricky, because the actual modern liturgical season of Lent (lasting 44 days, including Sundays) is numbered slightly differently than the traditional 40 day Lenten fast, which excludes Sundays.
The purpose of Lent is to be a season of fasting, self-denial, Christian growth, penitence, conversion, and simplicity. Lent, which comes from the Teutonic word for springtime, can be viewed as a spiritual spring cleaning: a time for taking spiritual inventory and then cleaning out those things which hinder our corporate and personal relationships with Jesus Christ and our service to him.
There are a few basic tasks that traditionally have been associated with Lent. Many of these have a long history. These are fasting, almsgiving, and prayer. In addition, reading the Scriptures and the Church’s Writings can help one grow during Lent. Let’s look at each of these suggestions individually.
The Western Rite of the Catholic Church requires its members age 18 and 59 to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, unless a physical condition prevents otherwise. This means only one full meal is permitted. The Fridays of Lent are days of required abstinence, meaning meat is not permitted. Abstinence is required of those age 14 and older.
When we “give something up” for Lent, we are embracing a form of fasting, an excellent spiritual discipline. Eastern Christians have a more rigorous fast, abstaining from meat, wine, oil, dairy products, and even fish. By giving these up, the person fasting learns to control a particular part of his or her life, which leads to greater self-discipline even when Lent is over. As such in Lent we are able to learn, examine, and get under control our material excesses. Lent is about spiritual results, not material ones.
Lent is a good time to develop or strengthen a discipline of daily prayer. Plan to attend Mass daily during the Lenten season to deepen your prayer life. The Divine Office, chanted daily at St. John Cantius, an ancient practice of praying throughout the day, is the best way to extend the spirit of prayer thoughout the day. A good goal for Lent would be to pray Lauds (Morning Prayer) and Vespers (Evening Prayer) everyday. If you already do that, perhaps you could add noon or Night Prayer (also called Compline). The Seven Penitential Psalms are excellent for prayer. Praying The Rosary throughout Lent can be rewarding too.
While Lent is about giving something up (i.e. fasting), it is also about putting something positive in its place. The best way to remove vice is to cultivate virtue. Lent has been a traditional time of helping the poor and doing acts of charity and mercy. Giving alms can involve volunteering for a charity, soup kitchen, nursing home or a shelter.
When facing temptation in the desert, Jesus relied on Scripture to counter the wiles of the devil. It is a formidable weapon for us as well. In a day when the Bible is more accessible than ever, Biblical illiteracy among Christians of all types is rampant and, quite honestly, shameful. Lent is an excellent time to remedy this problem. One way to read Scripture is to read the Scripture lessons of the Mass and of the Breviary (Divine Office).