Catholics and many other Christians prepare for the celebration of Easter by spending the preceding six weeks (forty days) fasting, praying, and observing a variety of religious traditions. While Lenten practices vary widely from one place to the next and from one Christian denomination to the next, most believers agree that this is a very important season – a time for repentance and reflection.
What is Lent?
If you’re new to Christianity, you may wonder what Lent is all about. This season commemorates the forty days which Jesus spent fasting and praying in the desert before he began his public ministry. The gospel readings heard and the liturgical rituals experienced during this season are based on the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke.
The Lenten season begins on Ash Wednesday and ends either on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, or Easter Sunday depending on denomination. During this time, faithful people commit to various forms of penitence; often, they simply give up some luxury, like eating a favorite food or even limiting the amount of time they spend on social media like Facebook. Often, people spend extra time devoted to prayer, or they renew their commitment to reading and studying the Bible.
In most Catholic churches and some Protestant churches, decorations are removed from altars and violet fabric is used to cover religious pictures, statues, and icons. In some countries where ancient religious customs are alive and well, people observe a number of different customs related to the passion and death of Christ. In western nations, including the United States, passion plays, living stations of the cross, and other Lenten gatherings are gaining popularity. If you live in an area with a large Hispanic population, you may be able to witness some of the old-fashioned celebrations, and no matter where you live, you might be able to take part in a cross walk or other procession.
Fasting and Abstinence During Lent
People from different faiths observe different customs related to fasting and abstinence. Some people fast from food for days at a time, while others observe the custom of taking in just one main meal per day and two smaller meals that when taken together would not make up another whole meal. Some fast only on Fridays. Many Catholics and some other faithful abstain from eating meat on Fridays during Lent, while others observe this form of abstinence only on Good Friday.
Whatever it is you decide to fast or abstain from during Lent, try to make it meaningful; but don’t make it so challenging that you won’t be able to keep your commitment. Besides physically fasting or abstaining from things that typically give you pleasure, you can do extra actions to make the season more meaningful. Some ideas include:
• Alms-giving. Give more than usual to a charity of your choice.
• Volunteering. Volunteer to help in your community, or just focus on helping others more than you typically do.
• Praying. Pray more than you usually do. Try setting aside a little extra time to pray each day, or to read the bible. Many people give up some TV time and use it to work on their spiritual lives instead.
Remember that fasting, praying, and observing Lent in other ways is not something we do for show. Instead, we use these methods to improve ourselves spiritually, and to enrich our lives and the lives of others. However you choose to celebrate Lent, do it wholeheartedly – you’ll be surprised by the changes that can take place in your life in just a few short weeks.