Lent is a time in many Western Christian Churches that marks the 40 days prior to Easter. Actually, there are 46 days, but Sundays are not counted in the days. It is a time for many Christians to prepare for Easter and the celebration of Christ’s resurrection, through prayer, fasting, and perhaps forgoing certain activities. Penitence for sins is valued above all.
For many Lent is also a time of grief, and a time of reflection on the nature of Christ and the crucifixion. One of the great heartaches of Christianity is the crucifixion of Christ, considered the head of the Christian Church. Yet, at the same time, many Christians hold that the suffering Jesus endured during the crucifixion is also the salvation of all Christians. Christ’s death absolves all Christians of sin and prepares the way for heaven.
Lent is often associated with fasting, but in many countries, rules for fasting during Lent are greatly relaxed. Old Catholic rules for example, used to require those over 18 and under 60 to fast until 3 pm on all days but Sunday during Lent. Further, eating meat, except for fish was forbidden. Today, many Catholics only abstain from eating meat on the Fridays during Lent, and they do not fast during the day.
Many Christians see Lent as a time of giving up a beloved thing. They might give up something tangible like a favorite food, or something intangible, like being angry. The goal in these small privations is to be more Christlike. Understanding how difficult it is to give up something simple is directed toward understanding how challenging it must have been for Christ to give up his life and willingly be sacrificed in order to save all.
The forty days of Lent are related to many biblical references to forty days. For example, Christ’s time of fasting in the wilderness is forty days, the flood in the Old Testament lasted for forty days, and Moses wandered for forty days. In general, most biblical scholars simply believe using forty days was a convention for saying “a very long time.” Some also connect the forty days of Lent to the hours Christ was entombed prior to his resurrection.
Different Christian sects observe Lent in varied ways. In general, Lenten observations by Catholics and Orthodox churches are seen as the strictest. However, many American Catholics only nominally observe Lenten rules. In countries where the population is predominantly Catholic, like Ireland or Mexico, Lenten rules are followed to a much greater degree.
One exception in Catholic practice of Lent is St. Patrick’s Day. St. Patrick’s Day, when it falls in Lent is not a fasting day. People may indulge in meat and drink. Also, for a long time after the potato famines in Ireland, those who had endured starvation had dispensations not to fast during Lent.
The last week of Lent is considered extremely important in preparing to celebrate Christ’s resurrection. It begins with Palm Sunday. The days that follow are Holy Days. Of these, Good Friday comprises the longest ceremony. It is not a mass, but is rather, often a three-hour ceremony in church that includes reading of the crucifixion scene. Penitential prayers are offered and many may go to confession in Catholic Churches, on Holy Thursday or Good Friday. Many observe the three hours, between 12-3pm. These are the hours in which Christ was crucified and finally died.
If people do not attend church services, they may read the bible at home or spend this time in contemplative prayer. Concentration on Christ’s suffering is important. In some cases, people reenact the Crucifixion, without actually crucifying anyone. However, according to current teachings by the pope, such reenactments are not really a good idea. They may stir resentment against today’s Jews and they fly in the face of the concept that since Christ died, Christians don’t have to endure the same level of suffering.