What is Lent? Meaning, History, and Traditions of the Lenten Season

By Chinecherem Efobi

What is Lent and why do people fast?

Lent is the six-week season that leads up to Easter. The Lenten season is one of the most significant times of the year for many Christians around the world, especially those within the Anglican, Catholic, and Orthodox churches, held at a comparable level of meaning to Advent, the arrival of Christmas.

While Advent is a time of rejoiceful anticipation, Lent is commonly regarded as a period of sober observance. The Lenten season is a preparation for commemorating the death and resurrection of Jesus at Easter. From its start date on Ash Wednesday until its conclusion on Easter Sunday, Lent has been a customary time for fasting or giving something up or abstinence. Just as we thoughtfully prepare for events in our individual lives, such as a wedding, or birthday; participating in Lent invites us to prepare our minds and hearts for glorifying Jesus’ life, death, and bodily resurrection.

Ash Wednesday starts Lent with a day of remembering our humanity, the reality of death, and the need for repentance. Churches symbolize this by putting ashes on foreheads, often in the shape of a cross.

Download your FREE copy of our 40 Day Lent and Easter Devotional- filled with daily Scriptures, reflections, and prayers for Lent season.

What Is the Meaning of Lent?

Lent is meant to be a time of repentance. A humble understanding of knowing that we are all born with the curse of sin and that there is repentance required. The purpose of Lent is to fully recognize our brokenness as humans and the need for a Savior. The time period of Lent allows for us to reflect and open our hearts to Jesus.

The main observation of Lent, fasting, is done so in order to clear distractions and focus on Christ. The act of giving up something and replacing it with prayer and worship, gives way to a deeper relationship with God.

“A more profound and closer communion with God is the reward of sacrifice and devotion. His love and one’s salvation are not reliant on denying oneself chocolate or beer, but idolatry stands in the way of worshiping the one true God.

These 40 days are set aside to praise and worship the Lord; to read the Bible more, and to pray more often. Christians who observe Lent correctly anticipate deeper intimacy with the Lord, which is the blessing; they do not expect rewards such as more favorable answers to prayer or the resolution of health concerns, although many Christians have reported that, following Lent, they experience freedom from long-standing issues.” ~ Excerpt by Candice Lucey

The 40 Days of Lent (not counting Sundays) honor the period of time similar to multiple stories in the Bible:

Jesus retreated into the wilderness, where He fasted for 40 days and was tempted by the devil ( Matthew 4:1-2, Mark 1:12-13, Luke 4:1-2).

The Hebrew people wandered 40 years in the desert while traveling to the Promised Land (Numbers 14:33)

Jonah’s prophecy of judgment gave 40 days to the city of Nineveh in which to repent or be destroyed (Jonah 3:4).

Moses spent 40 days on Mount Sinai with God (Exodus 24:18)

Elijah spent 40 days and nights walking to Mount Horeb (1 Kings 19:8)

God sent 40 days and nights of rain in the great flood of Noah (Genesis 7:4)

What Is the History of Lent?

Christians honor the 40 days and nights following Christ’s baptism when He went into the wilderness without water and food and was tempted by Satan. During that time, Christ did what we do today when we fast: wrestle with temptation.

This was not the first fast; biblical figures often fasted when petitioning God for something important. “So we fasted and implored our God […], and he listened to our entreaty” (Ezra 8:23). The Israelites “mourned and wept and fasted till evening for Saul and his son Jonathan, and for the army of the LORD and for the nation of Israel, because they had fallen by the sword” (2 Samuel 1:12).

Ft. Geoff Harvey describes the development of the 40-day fast in the early centuries of the Christian church, saying:

There is no evidence of a forty-day fast in the pre-Nicene period. The first explicit reference to such a fast is in Canon 5 of the Council of Nicaea (325), where it is treated as something familiar and established, not as an innovation on the part of the Council. By the end of the fourth century the observance of a forty-day fast seems to have been the standard practice in most parts of Christendom, but in some places – possibly including Rome – a shorter fast may have been kept.

This forty-day fast, found in evidence from the fourth century onwards, differs somewhat in scope and character from the one-week fast of the pre-Nicene period, and the precise relationship between the two is not easy to determine. It is, however, clear that whereas the pre-Nicene fast was specifically a Paschal observance in preparation for Easter, the forty-day fast was connected more particularly with the final preparation of the catechumens for the sacrament of Baptism or “illumination”.

In the weeks before their baptismal initiation, the candidates underwent a period of intensive training, with daily instruction, special services, and fasting. The existing members of the church community were encouraged to share with the catechumens in this prayer and abstinence, thus renewing year by year their baptismal dedication to Christ. So the forty-day fast came to involve the whole body of the faithful, and not just those preparing for Baptism.

Who Celebrates Lent?

You may think that all Christians celebrate and traditionally observe the Lenten season, but that’s actually not the case. While some Christians dutifully follow the customs of Lent, others do not participate in traditional Lenten practices such as strict fasting. Christians that honor and abide by the historical Lent tradition include Anglicans, Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Lutherans, and Methodists.

As the Daily Beast reports,

While in excess of a billion Christians observe Lent each year, not all Christians do. It is observed by Anglicans, Roman Catholics, Easter Orthodox, Lutherans, and Methodists. Whole swathes of Protestants don’t observe Lent — Baptists, Evangelicals, Pentecostalists, Latter Day Saints.

Many other Protestant denominations recognize Lent, although the extent to which they alter their day-to-day lives varies greatly and is mostly a question of individual conscience. These disciplines include restricting food, giving up luxuries (including, in the 21st century, social media), and engaging in charitable work.

Suggestions for Lent This Year

Whether you attend a church that observes Lenten traditions or not, you can use Lent as a time to reflect, repent and grow. Here are three things you can do this Lenten season:

Repent of sin. Identity a sinful activity that keeps coming up in your life, something that you know you need to work on. If you can’t think of one, pray and ask God if there is any sin he wants you to know about. You can probably identify several sins, but choose just one for now so you don’t lose focus during Lent.

Confess that sin to God and ask for repentance. If you are in a church community with Christians that you trust to hold you accountable, arrange to talk with each other about how you’re doing.

Set a prayer time. If you don’t already, pick a time each day, or a day of the week, to spend time with God in prayer. There are many prayer guides or Christian contemplation techniques, such as lectio divina, that you can use to guide this time. If you want a Bible passage to meditate on during this time, consider reading the passion story or something else Lent-related.

Choose something to fast from. Fasting is traditionally associated with food, but you can fast from anything that you ordinarily devote lots of time to. Some Christians will fast from video games, junk food, or non-Christian music during Lent. Use the time you would normally spend on those activities in prayer or contemplation.

If you have other Christians in your life that are interested in fasting, consider becoming each others’ accountability partners. Remember that the important thing is not to make fasting an obligation, but something that focuses your mind on God. Therefore, have grace with yourself and with others if you stop fasting or only do it part of the Lenten season.

Bible Verses for Lenten Season

1 Timothy 4:1-5

Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared, who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer.

Isaiah 58:6-7

“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?

Colossians 2:16-17

Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.

Matthew 6:16-18

“And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

Joel 2:12-13

“Yet even now,” declares the Lord, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments.” Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster.

1 Peter 5:6

Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you

1 Peter 1:3

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead

Lenten Prayer

O Lord and Master of my life!

Take from me the spirit of laziness,

faint-heartedness, desire for power, and idle talk.

But give your servant

the spirit of chastity,

humility, patience, and love.

Yes, Lord and King!

Grant me to see my own errors

and not to unjustly or hastily judge my brother,

for you are blessed, now and forever. Amen.

Source: Lenten Prayer of St. Ephrem the Syrian.