Understanding Lent


Bilal Atkinson, UK
Editor Christianity Section

Lent is a period of 40 days during which Christians remember the events leading up to and including the death of Jesus Christ (as). This 40-day period is called Lent after an old English word meaning ‘lengthen.’ Like all aspects of Christian life, this time of the year hinges upon the death and resurrection of Jesus (as).

Lent is the season of fasting and penitence that precedes Easter in some branches of Christianity and is devoted to fasting, abstinence, and penitence in commemoration of Christ’s fasting in the wilderness.

Lent therefore, is connected with the 40-day fast that Jesus (as) observed. In the New Testament, Mark 1:12-13 relates:

‘The Spirit immediately drove him (Jesus) out into the wilderness. And he was in the wilderness for forty days, being tempted by Satan. And he was with wild animals, and the angels were ministering to him.’

The Gospel of Mark tells us that Jesus was tempted by Satan, but it is in Matthew and Luke [Matthew 4:1–11; Luke 4:1–13] that the details of the temptation go into more detail.

It is one of the most important times of year for many Christians around the world, particularly those within the Anglican, Catholic, and Orthodox traditions.

Because Lent follows the liturgical calendar, the exact date that Lent falls on each year changes. Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, which is always held 46 days (40 fasting days and 6 Sundays) before Easter Sunday. Lent is also associated with Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, where ‘some Christians mark their foreheads with ash as a symbol of sorrow and mourning over their sin.’

‘Repent and believe in the Gospel’ [Mark 1:15], or ‘Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.’ [Genesis 3:19]

‘Then I turned my face to the Lord God, seeking him by prayer and pleas for mercy with fasting and sackcloth and ashes.’ [Daniel 9:3]

‘There was great mourning among the Jews, with fasting and weeping and lamenting, and many of them lay in sackcloth and ashes.’ [Esther 4:3]

Centuries ago, in preparation for Lent, those observing the fast would use Shrove Tuesday (the day before Ash Wednesday) to purify and remove from their house any of the items that they were foregoing for the 40 days. Traditionally this included meat, fish, eggs, fats, milk and sugar – so Shrove Tuesday became the final less meagre meal before the commencement of Lent.

Shrove Tuesday comes originally from the word shrive, meaning ‘absolve.’ As the last day before Lent, it was a day of self-examination where Christians would consider what sins they needed to repent from and what changes to their life or spiritual growth they would focus on during the fast.

The 40 days of Lent are set aside to praise and worship God, to read the Bible more, and to pray more often. Christians who observe Lent correctly anticipate deeper intimacy with God, although many Christians prefer not to observe this pre-Easter tradition.

Lent is seen as a time of solemn observance and preparation for the celebration of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (as) at Easter. From its start on Ash Wednesday until its conclusion on Easter Sunday. It has been a traditional time for fasting or abstaining from certain things.

Christians around the world observe Lent in different ways. Many from more orthodox and traditional denominations will still observe the fast strictly, beginning with the wearing of ashes on Ash Wednesday and abstinence of meat, fish, eggs, and fats until Easter Sunday.

Others choose to give up just one item for Lent; perhaps a ‘luxury’, such as chocolate, meat or alcohol. For instance, Mrs. Margaret Thatcher, when she was Prime Minister of the U.K. was once asked what she was ‘giving up’ for Lent and she replied ‘chocolate.’

Many Christians believe that giving something up for Lent is a way to attain God’s blessing. But the Bible intimates that Jesus taught that fasting should be done discreetly:

‘When you fast, do not look sombre as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen.’ [Matthew 6:16-18]

From these verses of the Gospel, it appears that the form of fasting recommended by Jesus (as) was probably similar to the fast prescribed by Islamic teaching, i.e., not eating or drinking so that the body suffers.  Otherwise, there is no reason to appear to people as haggard and tired if you only give up one thing, as is the present custom amongst some Christians during the period of Lent.

The other important point mentioned and emphasised by Jesus (as) is that the real virtue is the one which is done totally for the pleasure of God – preferably in secret and never to show off in front of other people.

The official end of Lent is on the day before Easter Sunday. There is a list of events leading up to Easter that is called Holy Week which begins with Palm Sunday. This marked Jesus’s arrival in Jerusalem, where palm branches were thrown at his feet. During Palm Sunday churchgoers are given palm crosses that are supposed to be kept until the next year.

Palm Sunday is followed by Maundy Thursday and commemorates Jesus’s last supper with his disciples. The next day is called Good Friday when Christians recall the crucifixion of Jesus (as). The final day of Holy Week is Easter, when Christians believe that Jesus rose from the dead in his tomb.

About the author: Bilal Atkinson is Editor of the Christianity Section of The Review of Religions. He is a retired police officer having served in forensics of scenes of crime for over two decades. He is also serving as President of the Hartlepool Chapter of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community UK.