Lent and Ash Wednesday Meaning: Fasting, Traditions, and How You Can Take Part in It

Learn about the meaning, origin and important dates about Lent and find out what you can do to participate in its observance.
Fasting and abstinence are two practices commonly observed during Lent. Pixabay

Lent is one of the most popular Christian traditions, yet many believers today are no longer aware of what it means and what the traditions associated with it are.

The observance of Lent is done in preparation for the Easter season. But before we delve into other details, let us take note of some important dates.

When is Lent 2017?

For the year 2017, Lent begins on March 1 and ends on April 13. It is observed for 40 days. The beginning of Lent is marked by Ash Wednesday. 

The dates change every year; there is no fixed date because the beginning of Lent depends on when Easter starts. Based on the lunar calendar, Easter officially begins the Sunday after the full moon that falls on or after the spring equinox, which typically happens around March 21.

What does Lent mean?

There is no clear explanation as to how the observance of Lent came to be, but one thing is sure: Christians practiced it to prepare themselves for the coming Easter, which is a celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The meaning of Lent focuses on examining one’s heart, repentance and self-denial or sacrifice as one reflects on the cross of Christ.

Some historians trace the origin of the Lenten season from Irenaus of Lyons, who wrote about an observance similar to Lent, except that it was done for just two or three days instead of 40 days, according to Christianity Today.

Others say it could have started in the year 325 when the Council of Nicea declared a 40-day fast. It isn’t clear if the fasting was meant for new believers who were going to be baptized or for the whole church, but it soon became the practice of the church.

Generally, churches fasted a total of 40 days (excluding Saturdays and Sundays in some, excluding only Sundays in others), taking only one meal at the end of the day. They ate only vegetables and avoided meat and fish during the Lenten season back then.

What is Ash Wednesday?

Ash Wednesday signals the start of Lent. It was initiated by Gregory the Great, who marked the foreheads of believers with ashes to remind them of repentance, which was often symbolized in the Bible as “sackcloth and ashes.”

The ashes were also meant to remind Christians of the life God has given, as Genesis 3:19 says: “By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.”

Lent Fasting and Traditions You Can Take Part In

The practices during Lenten season vary. In the Roman Catholic Church, fasting and abstinence are observed only on Ash Wednesday, Good Friday and other Fridays during the period of observance. Abstinence is generally understood as avoiding meat. Fish and other seafood, on the other hand, are allowed. The Catholic Church also practices acts of penitence.

Eastern Orthodox churches still practice strict rules on fasting during Lent, which they call the Great Fast. Their Lenten season does not begin on Ash Wednesday but on Clean Monday. The practice is meant to allow believers to enter into the Passion and Resurrection of Christ.

During the season, Eastern Orthodox churches abstain from meat, fish, eggs, oil, dairy products and wine. They also spend more time in prayer. Lent is also a time when they examine their hearts and actions, confess their sins, repent of wrongdoing, give alms, focus on improving themselves and make restitution for the wrong they have done.

Among mainline Protestant denominations, Episcopalians and Anglicans are still observing Lent, while evangelical churches are not observing it at all.

Whatever denomination you belong to, it is always good to check ourselves, our motives and our thoughts, to repent of our sins and to remember and reflect upon the cross of Jesus Christ.

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