Lent is the Christian season of preparation before Easter.
Lent is a time when many Christians prepare for Easter by observing a period
of fasting, repentance, moderation and spiritual discipline.
The purpose is to set aside time for reflection on Jesus Christ - his suffering
and his sacrifice, his life, death, burial and resurrection.
The Bible does not mention the custom of Lent, however, the practice of
repentance and mourning in ashes is found in 2 Samuel 13:19; Esther 4:1;
Job 2:8; Daniel 9:3; and Matthew 11:21.
In Western Christianity, Ash Wednesday marks the first day, or the start of
the season of Lent. Lent begins 40 days prior to Easter (not counting
Sundays). The 40 days is significant, as it commemorates the 40 days
Jesus fasted in the desert, and the 40 years the Israelites spent roaming in
the desert prior to entering the Holy Land.
Since Sundays are a time of celebration representing the resurrection in
Christianity, they are not included in the 40 days.
When does Lent end?:
Lent Ends the day before Easter Sunday, also known as Holy Saturday. Palm Sunday marks the last week of Lent and commemorates the day Jesus entered Jerusalem to people laying palms at his feet.
However, Roman Catholics end Lent at sundown on Holy Thursday when the Mass of the Lord's Supper begins.
How is Lent celebrated?:
Two things occur during Lent - fasting and prayer.
It used to be that fasting was the giving up of food, but today many Christians give up other items such as television or the Internet.
Orthodox Christians give up both meat and dairy products during Lent. The fasting is used to remind Christians of the 40 days Jesus spent in the desert fasting and being tempted by Satan.
Who celebrates Lent?:
There are several Christian denominations that do not celebrate Lent, but mainly Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, Roman Catholic, and Anglican churches observe Lent.
Ash Wednesday Starts the Easter Season
Ash Wednesday begins the Easter season by kicking off Lent. Just as the date of
Easter varies from year to year, so does Ash Wednesday, most often falling in
February or March.
What Do People Do on Ash Wednesday?
On Ash Wednesday Christians go to church to receive ash on their foreheads.
The receiving of ashes has a long tradition in the Church. In the past, Christians who
had committed grave sins performed their penance in public, so on Ash Wednesday
the Bishops would bless them by sprinkling ashes over them.
What's with the Ashes?
What most people notice on Ash Wednesday is that an awful lot of Christians are
running around with ashes smudged on their foreheads.
The ashes are made from the blessed palms used in the Palm Sunday celebration from the year prior.
They are sometimes christened with Holy Water and are scented by incense.
They are a symbol of penance and contrition, which is why believers are told "Remember, Man is dust, and unto dust you shall return" when he/she receives the ashes.
While throughout the day the ashes may turn into more of a smudge, they are actually applied to the forehead as the sign of the cross.
What Determines the Date of Ash Wednesday?
Two things determine the date of Ash Wednesday.
The first is the date of Easter.
The Council of Nicaea (A.D. 325) set the date of Easter as the Sunday following the paschal full moon, which is the full moon that falls on or after the vernal (spring) equinox. We know that Easter must always occur on a Sunday, because Sunday was the day of Christ's Resurrection. But why the paschal full moon? Because that was the date of Passover in the Jewish calendar, and the Last Supper (Holy Thursday) occurred on the Passover. Therefore, Easter was the Sunday after Passover.
The Church does not use the exact date of the paschal full moon but an approximation, because the paschal full moon can fall on different days in different time zones, which would mean that the date of Easter would be different depending on which time zone you live in.
For calculation purposes, the full moon is always set at the 14th day of the lunar month (the lunar month begins with the new moon). Likewise, the Church sets the date of the vernal equinox at March 21, even though it can occur on March 20. Both approximations allow the Church to set a universal date for Easter.
The second is the length of Lent. While Lent is 40 days, Sundays are not included in the count.
There are six Sundays that fall within the 40 days of Lent, so Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, falls 46 days before Easter every year.