Lent is an ancient tradition going back to the third century church. And yet, many of us today may not know exactly what Lent is, or why Christians observe this season in the church year.
The English word “Lent” came from an old, Anglo-Saxon word, “Lencten,” which meant Spring.
The early church began to observe a 40-day period in the springtime that ends during Holy Week, concluding on the Saturday before Easter. The church established the observance of Lent each year to prepare those who were going to be baptized on Easter Sunday. The baptism candidates would spend this time in concentrated study and prayer. Because these new members were going to become part of the living Body of Christ, the whole church community was called to join in the preparations to receive the new members.
Today, Lent is observed on 40 weekdays and Saturdays, from Ash Wednesday until the Saturday before Easter. Sundays are not included in the 40 days because each Sunday is a celebration of Jesus Christ’s resurrection.
The number 40 symbolizes the 40 days that Jesus spent in the wilderness, fasting, praying, and facing temptations as he prepared himself for his earthly ministry. Seeking to imitate Christ, many Christians around the world likewise set aside this period of time each year for self-examination, humble listening to God, and for repenting of our sins as the Spirit reveals them to us.
Many Christians fast during this time to help them focus on God, to attune their hearts to His voice, and to increase their sense of dependence on Him. Traditionally, fasting Christians gave up meat, alcohol, sweets and other types of food. Some traditions emphasize not just giving up something, but on doing good works, such as donating to charities or helping those in need. Other traditions emphasize prayer, repenting and seeking spiritual revival.