Lent: Meaning, Fasting, Myths, Important Days, Carnival

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Carnival in Venice
The weeks leading up to Easter are called Lent. Lent takes place over the 40 day period from Ash Wednesday to Easter. Traditionally marked by fasting and prayer, Lent commemorates the 40 days and nights that Jesus spent in the wilderness after his baptism. Lent is derived from the Old English word “lencten”, meaning 'lengthen' or 'spring.'. Lent is observed in spring, when the days begin to get longer. Lent is preceded by Shrove Tuesday (See Carnival Below).

Lent is an effort to relive Jesus's 40-day fast in the wilderness and is regarded as a time of penitential preparation for Easter. Christians go without thing near and dear to them to honor the sacrifice made by Christ when he died on the cross. They may attend mass and hear special readings from the Bible.

Catholic Lent is a period of 40 days, not including Sundays, It officially ends at midnight on Easter Saturday. This works out to six weeks plus four days. Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are days of fasting and abstinence. Fridays are days of abstinence. Orthodox Lent is 50 days long. All days are days of abstinence, 43 are also fast days. Russian Orthodox observe the 48 days of Lent by not drinking alcohol or eating food that comes from animals such as meat, milk or eggs and or products that contains these things, even milk chocolate. The consumption of red wine and seafood is okay on certain dates.

Websites and Resources on Christianity BBC on Christianity bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/christianity ;Christian Answers christiananswers.net ; Christian Classics Ethereal Library www.ccel.org ; Sacred Texts website sacred-texts.com ; Internet Sourcebook sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Christian Denominations: Holy See w2.vatican.va ; Catholic Online catholic.org ; Catholic Encyclopedia newadvent.org ; World Council of Churches, main world body for mainline Protestant churches oikoumene.org BBC on Baptists bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/christianity ; BBC on Methodists bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/christianity ; ; Orthodox Church in America oca.org/saints/lives ; Online Orthodox Catechism published by the Russian Orthodox Church orthodoxeurope.org

Observing Lent

Lent has traditionally been a time of fasting and reflection. According to the BBC: “ By observing Lent, Christians replicate Jesus Christ's sacrifice and withdrawal into the desert for 40 days. Lent is marked by fasting, both from food and festivities. Whereas Easter celebrates the resurrection of Jesus after his death on the cross, Lent recalls the events leading up to and including Jesus' crucifixion by Rome. This is believed to have taken place in Roman occupied Jerusalem. [Source: June 22, 2009 BBC |::|]

“Why 40 days? 40 is a significant number in Jewish-Christian scripture: In Genesis, the flood which destroyed the earth was brought about by 40 days and nights of rain. The Hebrews spent 40 years in the wilderness before reaching the land promised to them by God. Moses fasted for 40 days before receiving the ten commandments on Mount Sinai. Jesus spent 40 days fasting in the wilderness in preparation for his ministry. |Most Christians regard Jesus' time in the wilderness as the key event for the duration of Lent.

“The colour purple: Purple is the symbolic colour used in some churches throughout Lent, for drapes and altar frontals. Purple is used for two reasons: firstly because it is associated with mourning and so anticipates the pain and suffering of the crucifixion, and secondly because purple is the colour associated with royalty, and celebrates Christ's resurrection and sovereignty. |::|

Both the eastern and western churches observe Lent but they count the 40 days differently. The western church excludes Sundays (which is celebrated as the day of Christ's resurrection) whereas the eastern church includes them. The churches also start Lent on different days. Western churches start Lent on the 7th Wednesday before Easter Day (called Ash Wednesday). Eastern churches start Lent on the Monday of the 7th week before Easter and end it on the Friday 9 days before Easter. Eastern churches call this period the 'Great Lent'. The last week of Lent is called Holy Week.” |::|

On Lent in the 4th Century, Egeria wrote in the A.D. 380s: “XXVII And when the Paschal days come they are observed thus : Just as with us forty days are kept before Easter, so here eight weeks are kept before Easter. And eight weeks are kept because there is no fasting on the Lord's Days, nor on the Sabbaths, except on the one Sabbath on which the Vigil of Easter falls, in which case the fast is obligatory. With the exception then of that one day, there is never fasting on any Sabbath here throughout the year. Thus, deducting the eight Lord's Days and the seven Sabbaths (for on the one Sabbath, as I said above, the fast is obligatory) from the eight weeks, there remain forty-one fast days, which they call here Eortae, that is Quadragesimae. [Source: “Egeria's Description of the Liturgical Year in Jerusalem” based on the translation reproduced in Louis Duchesme's Christian Worship (London, 1923), published online by Michael Fraser, Department of Theology, University of Durham. June 1994, users.ox.ac.uk ]

Meaning of Lent


Candida Moss wrote in the Daily Beast: The scriptural impetus for Lent is the forty days that Jesus spent in the wilderness after his baptism. The three earliest Gospels – Matthew, Mark, and Luke – all state that after his encounter with John the Baptist at the river Jordan, Jesus was led out into the desert by the Spirit (in the Gospel of Mark the Greek reads that Jesus was “kicked out” or “driven” into the desert by the Spirit). There he spent 40 days and night being tempted by Satan before calling the disciples in Galilee. New Testament scholars compare the period Jesus spends in the desert to the forty days that Moses spent talking with God on Mount Sinai in Exodus. In other words, we’re imitating Jesus imitating Moses. Or, put differently, forty days is the standard time period for significant spiritual events. [Source: Candida Moss, Daily Beast, February 26, 2017]

James Martin wrote in the Washington Post: “As Lent arrives each year, the most common question posed to Christians is: “What are you giving up?” To a large extent, Lent does include sacrifice — abstaining from certain foods, gossip, laziness and the like — but the sacrifice is not for its own sake. It reminds us that we can exercise self-control and that Jesus underwent tremendous physical sacrifices during his Passion. It also spurs us to charity. One of the original goals of cutting back on consumption, after all, was to save money to give to the poor. [Source: James Martin, Washington Post, April 18, 2014. Martin is a Jesuit priest and author of “Jesus: A Pilgrimage” |~|]

“But overall, Lent is about spiritual preparation; sacrifice is simply a means to that end. Often I ask people not, “What are you giving up for Lent?” But, “What are you doing for Lent?” Are you being kind? Loving? Forgiving? These activities, which move us beyond sacrifice, prepare believers to welcome Christ into their lives in a new way. That’s why one of the phrases in the Lenten prayers in the Mass speaks about the “joy” of Lent.” |~|

Jesus is Tempted by the Devil During 40-Day, 40-Night Fast

After his baptism, Jesus took on the responsibility of being a representative of God and began to prepare for that duty. As a test of his faith and endurance he spent 40 days in the desert alone, praying and fasting and being tempted by Satan. Lent is an effort to relive Jesus's 40-day fast in the wilderness. Forty days is also the length of time in which Moses and Elijah waited for their meeting God on Mt. Sinai.

The devil tested Jesus in three ways during his 40 day, 40 night fast. First he asked a hungry Jesus to use his powers to make bread from stones. Second he told him to win fame by throwing himself off the roof of the Temple and getting angels to save him. Third, he took Jesus to a high a place and promised him all things.

On the third test, a passage in Chapter 4 of the Book of Matthew explains: “The devil taketh him up into an exceedingly high mountain and sheweth him all the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them, and saith unto him: all these things I will give the if thou wilt fall down and worship me.” Jesus refused, saying "Get away, Satan! It is written: 'The Lord, your God, shall you worship and him alone shall you serve.'" Mount of Temptation (near Jericho) is traditional place where this event is said to have occurred.

Christian Fasting

Michael J. McClymond wrote in the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”: Christian fasting “can involve refraining from all food and drink (an absolute fast), forgoing all food but not fluids, or refraining from certain kinds of food or drink (for example, meat). The second-century Didache ("Teaching") indicates that the earliest Christians fasted on Wednesdays and Fridays. During the course of history, fasting developed in two directions. [Source: Michael J. McClymond, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”, 2000s, Encyclopedia.com]

Some Christians came to fast according to a church calendar, especially during Lent, while others fasted at times and in ways they chose. Monastic communities have sometimes practiced fasting as a way of life. Some fourth-century monks, for example, prayed and fasted each day until the ninth hour (3 p.m.), at which time they ate their first meal. Others have rejected meat or rich foods such as butter, oil, wine, or spicy cuisine. Some modern groups have taught that a restricted or bland diet is conducive to holy living. The nineteenth-century American prophetess Ellen White sought simple food for her followers, and her disciple John Harvey Kellogg invented cornflakes.

Fasting is common among contemporary Pentecostal and charismatic Christians, who view the practice, combined with fervent prayer, as a means of releasing spiritual power and overcoming obstacles. Pentecostals may enter into prolonged fasts for up to 40 days, in imitation of Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. Woon Mong Ra (born in 1914) trained his Korean followers to with-draw to a "prayer mountain" and fast for weeks at a time, and he reported that dramatic conversions, healings, and exorcisms followed.

Fasting, Abstaining and Eating During Lent

Lent has traditionally not required a total fast. Among Roman Catholics it typically involves refraining from eating meat on Fridays from Ash Wednesday until Easter. In Orthodoxy there are differing dietary restrictions, forbidding milk and eggs as well as meat, and the total period of time was extended, since neither Saturdays nor Sundays were regarded as appropriate for fasting and Orthodoxy wished to keep the number of fast days at exactly 40. Orthodox Christians also fast during Advent and before certain major festivals. [Source: Michael J. McClymond, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”, 2000s, Encyclopedia.com]

Candida Moss wrote in the Daily Beast: If there is one thing Lent is known for it’s fasting. It has a reputation for being a period of self-restraint, particularly when it comes to food. So much so that priests will regularly tell parishioners that Lent is not just an excuse to diet. According to the canons of the Catholic Church, all Catholics over the age of 14 must abstain from meat on Fridays in Lent. Failure to observe this is sinful unless you have a good excuse (sickness, pregnancy, breast feeding, extreme manual labor, etc). Interestingly, if you’re attending a meal and cannot avoid eating without causing your host and fellow guests’ embarrassment then you are permitted to break your fast. Everyone over the age of 18 is required to fast on the same days. [Source: Candida Moss, Daily Beast, February 26, 2017]

Technically, fasting and abstaining are not the same thing: fasting means restricting the amount of food you eat (usually to one main and two small meals). Abstinence, when applied to meat (or, sex or anything else for that matter) means giving that thing up entirely. This doesn’t mean that fasting and abstaining from meat are easy to do: some scholars have hypothesized that during the medieval period (when regulations were tougher) women would breastfeed for longer than necessary so that they could avoid fasting during Lent.

According to the BBC: “ Only a small number of people today fast for the whole of Lent, although some maintain the practice on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. It is more common these days for believers to surrender a particular vice such as favourite foods or smoking. Whatever the sacrifice it is a reflection of Jesus' deprivation in the wilderness and a test of self-discipline. [Source: June 22, 2009 BBC |::|]

According to The Columbus Dispatch: “Traditionally meat was not eaten on Fridays during Lent. Since fish was not considered to be meat for the purposes of Lent, this led to the tradition of churches holding a “fish fry” on Fridays during Lent. In many communities, gathering at a church for a fried fish meal on Friday evening is a popular Lenten activity. “Some Christians today use Lent as an opportunity to refrain from other foods, such as chocolate or alcoholic beverages, or to avoid activities deemed frivolous, like playing video games. Serious issues — such as awareness of social injustice, or stewardship of the environment — may also be deemed appropriate for examination and contemplation during Lent. In some churches, certain religious objects, like crosses, are covered during Lent, often with a purple cloth. [Source: The Columbus Dispatch, USA TODAY Network, February 23, 2022]

Why Lent Is More than Just Giving up Chocolate or Meat

Jessica A. Johnson wrote in the Athens Banner-Herald: When looking at how Lent is often generally viewed today, I don't think many truly understand the depth of what it means regarding consecrating ourselves to God. While in the wilderness, Jesus was preparing himself for his earthly ministry, which would include fierce opposition from religious leaders as well as joy and intimate friendships, before ultimately enduring death on the cross for the sins of the world. [Source: Jessica A. Johnson, Athens Banner-Herald March 13, 2022]

Carnival in Venice, Masked Lovers
In casual conversations regarding Lent, a lot of people are fine with just giving up basic daily pleasures. Do a simple Google search on Lent and you will see some of the top 30 things to go without include sweets, television, screen time on our phones, video games and coffee. Of this short list, I think coffee would probably be the hardest, for friends I know who say they cannot live without their caffeine fix every morning. For younger adults and teens, less time scrolling on their smartphones and not playing video games for over a month would most likely be their toughest challenges.

We can all muster up the discipline to forgo these indulgences if we really want to, so the real question is, are we growing spiritually from putting them aside during Lent or are we just going through a dutiful ritual? Before Lent season began, my pastor led a Bible study session where she discussed the importance of consecration, teaching on the passage in 2 Timothy 2:21 that instructs us to "purge" ourselves from dishonorable things so that we can be vessels and "meet for the master's use." The next verse commands us to follow "righteousness, faith, charity, and peace." If we obey these spiritual principles, one of the great promises of God is that He will draw closer to us (James 4:8).

Shrove Tuesday

Shrove Tuesday (Fat Tuesday), is the day before Lent, it is time of partying and feasting before Lent starts. Although many scholars have argued that Carnival has it origins in ancient pagan festivals or the ancient Roman Isis festival, Spanish scholar Julio Caro Baroja argues that it evolved as a pure Christian festival because there is no record of it ever existing without being associated with Lent.

According to the BBC: “Shrove Tuesday is the day before Lent starts: the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. It's a day of penitence, to clean the soul, and a day of celebration as the last chance to feast before Lent begins. Shrove Tuesday is sometimes called Pancake Day after the fried batter recipe traditionally eaten on this day. But there's more to Shrove Tuesday than pigging out on pancakes or taking part in a public pancake race. The pancakes themselves are part of an ancient custom with deeply religious roots. [Source: June 22, 2009 BBC |::|]

“Shrove Tuesday gets its name from the ritual of shriving that Christians used to undergo in the past. In shriving, a person confesses their sins and receives absolution for them. When a person receives absolution for their sins, they are forgiven for them and released from the guilt and pain that they have caused them. In the Catholic or Orthodox context, the absolution is pronounced by a priest. |::|

“This tradition is very old. Over 1000 years ago a monk wrote in the Anglo-Saxon Ecclesiastical Institutes In the week immediately before Lent everyone shall go to his confessor and confess his deeds and the confessor shall so shrive him. |::|

Shrove Tuesday Celebrations

According to the BBC: “Shrove Tuesday is a day of celebration as well as penitence, because it's the last day before Lent. Lent is a time of abstinence, of giving things up. So Shrove Tuesday is the last chance to indulge yourself, and to use up the foods that aren't allowed in Lent. Giving up foods: but not wasting them During Lent there are many foods that some Christians - historically and today - would not eat: foods such as meat and fish, fats, eggs, and milky foods. [Source: June 22, 2009 BBC |::|]

“So that no food was wasted, families would have a feast on the shriving Tuesday, and eat up all the foods that wouldn't last the forty days of Lent without going off. The need to eat up the fats gave rise to the French name Mardi Gras ('fat Tuesday'). Pancakes became associated with Shrove Tuesday as they were a dish that could use up all the eggs, fats and milk in the house with just the addition of flour. |::|


Carnival in Sante Fe, Argentina

Carnival is the celebration that occurs before Lent starts. It generally runs for three days to ten days and is viewed as the last time in which people can party and let themselves go before Lent. The word “carnival” is believed to be derived from the Latin word for “flesh farewell.” It features parades, pageants, street shows and grand balls. People often wear the masks and costumes. Mardis Gras is another name for Carnival.

Carnival is celebrated all over Italy but it is an especially a big deal in Venice and other cities in northern Italy. In most cities and towns the celebrations last for 10 days, with most of the activities concentrated in the last week, climaxing with special events of some kind during the last three days of the festival. Carnival in Venice lasts for 10 days with a succession of events that transforms the city into a magical stage full of costumed figures and ghostly ceramic masks. It features parades, pageants, street shows and grand balls. People often wear the masks and costumes all day and can be seen shopping and sitting in cafes with them. Masks cost anywhere from a few dollars to several thousand dollars for gold one with elaborate designs made by local ateliers. Kilometers of silk and lace are ordered for the elaborate costumes.

Carnival in Brazil is spelled Carnaval in Portuguese. Described as the world's biggest party, it is is a four day festival like Mardi Gras that ends on Shrove Tuesday, the day before Lent. In earlier years, Carnaval was a time of playing pranks (such as dropping water bags from windows on unsuspecting bypasser below), dressing up in costumes, parading through the streets, and dancing at the Carnaval balls. Today people dress in everything from clown suits called “pierots” to ultra-small gilded bikinis and colored feathers to elaborate armored spacemen outfits.

Carnaval is a time when social rules are suspended, when passion and tensions are released, when drinking is done in extremes, when all social groups intermingle and when emotions go unchecked. There is often a great amount of violence; thieves and pickpockets run wild; and hundreds of people die every year at Carnaval. Things often get so wild at Carnaval that naked couples have sex in the streets and scores perish in liquor induced brawls and accidents. The highlight of Carnaval is the grand parade, where floats and samba groups pass by a grandstand with tens of thousands of spectators and a panel of judges who give out awards for the best float, costumes, and musical performance.

Shrove Monday, and Tuesday (which often occur during the week preceding the Lenten fast) are celebrated with the reading of satirical wills, masked parties and procession and general permissiveness (behavior that would be regarded as mad, indulgent or scandalous is regarded as okay during Carnaval)

Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday is the First Day of Lent. Lent starts of Wednesday because penance is not performed on Sunday. Ash Wednesday gets its name from the practice, performed mainly by Catholics, of burning the palms from the previous year’s Palm Sunday and putting the ashes on one’s forehead as reminder that “man is but dust” when faced with God and a reminder to do penance. The fourth Sunday of Lent, called “Laetar” , is time to take a break from penance and enjoy life a little before resuming Lent and preparing for Easter.

Traditionally, ashes used on Ash Wednesday are gathered up after palms from the previous year’s Palm Sunday are burned. They are then blessed before being used in the ceremony. Palms are used on Palm Sunday in many Christian churches to symbolize Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem on the Sunday before his crucifixion. Residents of Jerusalem are said to have waved palm fronds to celebrate his arrival.

According to the BBC: “Ash Wednesday is the beginning of Lent for Western Christian churches. It's a day of penitence to clean the soul before the Lent fast. Roman Catholic, Anglican, and some other churches hold special services at which worshippers are marked with ashes as a symbol of death and sorrow for sin. [Source: June 22, 2009 BBC |::|]

Lent penitence by Bruegel

“Ash Wednesday services draws on the ancient Biblical traditions of covering one's head with ashes, wearing sackcloth, and fasting. In Ash Wednesday services churchgoers are marked on the forehead with a cross of ashes as a sign of penitence and mortality. The use of ashes, made by burning palm crosses from the previous Palm Sunday, is very symbolic. |“God our Father, you create us from the dust of the earth. Grant that these ashes may be for us a sign of our penitence, and a symbol of our mortality. — Traditional Ash Wednesday prayer |::|

“The minister or priest marks each worshipper on the forehead, and says remember you are dust and unto dust you shall return, or a similar phrase based on God's sentence on Adam in Genesis 3:19. The modern practice in Roman Catholic churches nowadays is for the priest to dip his right thumb in the ashes and, making the Sign of the Cross on each person's forehead, say: Remember, that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return (or a variation on those words). |::|

“At some churches the worshippers leave with the mark still on their forehead so that they carry the sign of the cross out into the world. At other churches the service ends with the ashes being washed off as a sign that the participants have been cleansed of their sins. |::|

“The marking of their forehead with a cross made of ashes reminds each churchgoer that: 1) Death comes to everyone; 2) They should be sad for their sins; 3) They must change themselves for the better; 4) God made the first human being by breathing life into dust, and without God, human beings are nothing more than dust and ashes; 5)

The shape of the mark and the words used are symbolic in other ways: 1) The cross is a reminder of the mark of the cross made at baptism; 2) The phrase often used when the ashes are administered reminds Christians of the doctrine of original sin; 3) The cross of ashes may symbolise the way Christ's sacrifice on the cross as atonement for sin replaces the Old Testament tradition of making burnt offerings to atone for sin; 4) Where the ashes come from |::|

“The ashes used on Ash Wednesday are made by burning the palm crosses that were blessed on the previous year's Palm Sunday. Ashes can also be bought from Church suppliers. A bag of ashes big enough for 1000 people costs around £8. The ash is sometimes mixed with anointing oil, which makes sure that the ashes make a good mark. The use of anointing oil also reminds the churchgoer of God's blessings and of the anointing that took place at their baptism.

Mothering Sunday

“Mothering Sunday is the fourth Sunday of Lent. Nowadays, Mothering Sunday is a day when children give presents, flowers, and home-made cards to their mothers. According to the BBC: Although it's often called Mothers' Day it has no connection with the American festival of that name. Traditionally, it was a day when children, mainly daughters, who had gone to work as domestic servants were given a day off to visit their mother and family. Today it is a day when children give presents, flowers, and home-made cards to their mothers. [Source: BBC, July 5, 2011 |::|]

“Most Sundays in the year churchgoers in England worship at their nearest parish or 'daughter church'. Centuries ago it was considered important for people to return to their home or 'mother' church once a year. So each year in the middle of Lent, everyone would visit their 'mother' church - the main church or cathedral of the area. Inevitably the return to the 'mother' church became an occasion for family reunions when children who were working away returned home. (It was quite common in those days for children to leave home for work once they were ten years old.) |::|

Final Week of Lent — Holy Week.

According to The Columbus Dispatch: “The final week of Lent in Western Christianity is known as Holy Week. It begins on Palm Sunday, the day that commemorates Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, in which the path traveled was strewn with palm branches, according to the Gospel. In many churches, congregants are given palms to carry in a procession. [Source: The Columbus Dispatch, USA TODAY Network, February 23, 2022]

“The following Thursday is known in English as Maundy Thursday or Holy Thursday. It commemorates the Last Supper, or the final meal Jesus shared with his disciples. Coverings of religious objects in churches may be changed from purple cloths to white cloths for this day. Because of parallels between the Last Supper — described as a Passover meal in the Gospels — and the Jewish Seder meal held on the first night of Passover, some Christian churches now hold meals that have adopted rituals from the Seder in commemoration.

“Friday is known as Good Friday, which recalls Jesus’ crucifixion. Black cloths may be used to cover religious objects in a church on this day, and some Christians fast by eating only one substantial meal on this day. Lent culminates two days later with the arrival of Easter Sunday, commemorating Jesus’ resurrection. White cloths are now used to cover religious objects in those churches that practice this ritual, and the other customs of the somber Lenten season give way to the joyous mood of Easter.

Image Sources: Wikimedia, Commons

Text Sources: Internet Sourcebook sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File); “ Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); King James Version of the Bible, gutenberg.org; New International Version (NIV) of The Bible, biblegateway.com; Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL) ccel.org , Frontline, PBS, Wikipedia, BBC, National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Encyclopedia.com, Reuters, Associated Press, Business Insider, AFP, Library of Congress, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2024

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