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Lent, explained

Ash Wednesday kicks off a solemn period of fasting and spiritual renewal on Christian church calendars, leading to the Easter celebration.

A woman with a cross on her forehead for Ash Wednesday listens to Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) during a presidential campaign rally on February 10, 2016, in Columbia, South Carolina.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Lent is a mystery to a lot of people. Many folks are generally aware that it’s a religious observance that happens every spring and somehow involves people getting ashes smeared on their forehead and/or giving up chocolate or booze or Facebook until Easter. But like most practices rooted in Christianity, the way people observe Lent, or whether they observe it at all, varies wildly depending on their heritage, specific religious tradition, and preferences.

Still, there are some rules and guidelines that mark the observance of Lent for Christians who observe the season. And, increasingly, even nonreligious people are picking up the ritual. Here’s an overview.

What is Lent?

Lent is the greatest and most solemn period of fasting on the Christian church’s calendar, leading up to the celebration of Christianity’s most important feast day: Easter.

The easiest way to understand the church calendar is as a sort of live immersive theater, designed to reenact the life of Jesus every year from Christmas (birth) to Easter (resurrection). During that time, readings in traditional churches revisit stories from the gospels that focus on those events in Jesus’s life. (After Easter comes a 50-day “Easter Season” culminating in Pentecost, and then a season called either the Pentecost season or “Ordinary Time,” which lasts until Advent begins around the end of November.)

As Advent is the season of anticipation leading up to the feast day of Christmas, Lent is the season that precedes an even greater feast day: Easter, the day when Christians celebrate Jesus’s resurrection and triumph over death.

In English, Lent got its name from the Old English word len(c)ten, which means “spring season.”

How long is Lent, and why?

Lent technically lasts for 46 days.

The period is a mirror of the 40 days that Jesus spent in the wilderness, fasting, praying, and being tempted by Satan before he started his public ministry. Jesus had gone to the desert to prepare his soul for an intense three-year period of healing people, preaching, and ministering, at the end of which he was crucified by the Roman Empire and religious leaders.

The concept behind Lent is that each year, Christians will mimic Jesus’s actions in the wilderness. Lent is sometimes called the “Great Fast.” It’s a period of time in which Christians are meant to give up some comfort or adopt some spiritual practice that leads to self-examination, repentance from sin, and, ultimately, renewal of the soul, all in anticipation of greater dedication to serving others and God in the coming year.

Catholics celebrate Ash Wednesday during a mass at Our Lady of Lourdes Church, Malad, on March 6, 2019, in Mumbai, India.
Satyabrata Tripathy/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

Advent, the period leading up to Christmas, is also sometimes observed as a fast. But in that case, the period is meant to foster a feeling of anticipation before celebrating the birth of Jesus.

Lent, by contrast, is more about recognizing and embracing one’s mortality, and acknowledging the sinfulness that marks earthly life. Since Christians believe that Jesus’s resurrection foreshadows the resurrection and renewal of the whole world at the end of days, Lent is a time to turn away from sin, mourn death and brokenness, and anticipate a day when the broken world will be healed.

If Jesus fasted for 40 days, why is Lent 46 days long?

Because each week, the fast is interrupted by a Sunday — six in all.

In traditional Christian teaching, each Sunday is itself a feast day, a mini-remembrance of Jesus’s resurrection that happens every week. So, Christians who observe Lent are told to break their Lenten fast on Sunday and celebrate the feast. The manner in which they break that fast varies, depending on the tradition.

(This mirrors the Jewish teaching that prohibits fasting on the Sabbath, except in years when Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, falls on the Sabbath.)

How are the dates for Lent calculated?

It’s complicated, and it depends on the date of Easter.

In contrast to Christmas, which in Western Christianity (encompassing most Protestants and Roman Catholics) is always celebrated on December 25, Easter is a moveable holiday that drifts around the calendar. However, it always falls on a Sunday during the Northern Hemisphere’s spring.

As with many other holiday observances in Christianity, the history of Easter date-setting is rather long and complicated, stretching back millennia and interacting with various calendars used by people in the ancient world.

But since roughly the First Council of Nicaea in 325 CE — when church leaders set rules, precedents, and guidelines for many aspects of Christian worship — the date of Easter has been more or less determined by locating the first full moon following March 21 on the Gregorian calendar. And that’s how the date is determined by Western churches today. Orthodox Christians use a slightly different system — which means that when Orthodox Easter (sometimes called Pascha) lands on the same day as Western Easter, as it did in 2017, it’s coincidental.

This year, Western Easter is on April 4, and Orthodox Easter is on May 2.

Children at the White House Easter Egg Roll in 2019.
Jabin Botsford/Washington Post via Getty Images

As with Christmas, the Christian holiday of Easter has been adopted in the mainstream as a secularized holiday and packaged as a commercial product — traditionally with chocolate eggs and stuffed rabbits. That secularized version of the holiday is celebrated on the Western Christianity date for Easter.

(The annual White House Easter Egg Roll is held on Easter Monday, the day after Easter Sunday, a tradition dating back to 1878, when Rutherford B. Hayes issued an order allowing children to roll Easter eggs on the lawn that day.)

Once the date for Easter is fixed, all you have to do to calculate the other days of observance that fall during the Lenten period — including Ash Wednesday, Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, and Good Friday — is count backward. Good Friday is the Friday before Easter, and Maundy Thursday is the day before that. Both of those days are traditionally marked with special church services.

The Sunday one week before Easter Sunday is called Palm Sunday, in remembrance of Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem a week before his crucifixion, as the crowd waved palm branches. Branches used in the church celebration are saved to be used to make ashes for the next year’s Ash Wednesday observance.

Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, falls 46 days before Easter. The day preceding it is sometimes celebrated as Shrove Tuesday, Fat Tuesday, or Mardi Gras, depending on who you’re talking to.

What is Ash Wednesday?

Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent on the Western Christian calendar, falling 46 days before Easter. In 2021, Ash Wednesday falls on February 17.

Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz leads the Ash Wednesday 2019 celebrations in Wawel Cathedral in Krakow.
Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images

In observance of the day, the palm branches that were blessed on the Palm Sunday of the previous year are burned to create ashes and used to mark worshippers’ foreheads at church services. Traditionally, the minister applying the ashes says "Repent, and believe in the Gospel" or "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return."

The latter phrase originates in Genesis 3:19, when God casts Adam and Eve out of paradise after they disobey him and tells them they must labor for their food from that moment until their deaths. It is echoed throughout the Bible, and refers to the idea that man was created from the dust of the ground, and the body turns back into dust by disintegration after death.

You can think of Ash Wednesday as the Christian spin on memento mori, a yearly reminder that our lives will one day end in death. It’s the start of a season meant to remind observers, in a visceral way — through denying themselves the comfort of food or some other thing — that humans are limited, and must depend on God for their very life. It is a day for humility.

That observance of death took on a new tone in 2021, as churches adopting new practices to minimize the spread of Covid-19 following a year of widespread death and suffering. For some, that means clergy will sanitize their hands between giving ashes. The Vatican’s guidance suggests that priests pronounce the traditional words of remembrance to the full congregation and sprinkle ashes silently on the worshippers, instead of making physical contact and speaking in close proximity. Some churches (including the Church of England) have created Instagram filters to allow the faithful to superimpose digital ashes on their foreheads rather than go inside a church, for safety reasons.

In 1930, following his conversion to Christianity, T.S. Eliot published a famous poem called “Ash Wednesday,” which includes these lines that illustrate the attitude that the observance of Ash Wednesday is meant to evoke:

And pray to God to have mercy upon us
And pray that I may forget
These matters that with myself I too much discuss
Too much explain
Because I do not hope to turn again
Let these words answer
For what is done, not to be done again
May the judgement not be too heavy upon us

Because these wings are no longer wings to fly
But merely vans to beat the air
The air which is now thoroughly small and dry
Smaller and dryer than the will
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still.

Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death
Pray for us now and at the hour of our death.

(The last two lines of the poem are from the “Hail Mary” prayer, forms of which are prayed by Catholics, Anglicans, and some Lutherans and other Protestant denominations.)

In some parts of the world, the day before Ash Wednesday is celebrated as Mardi Gras or Shrove Tuesday, and can involve anything from pancakes and self-examination to wild partying (sometimes to mark the end of Carnival). It’s a last hurrah before the season of penitence begins.

In 2021, with many Mardi Gras celebrations canceled in the pandemic, people celebrated in different ways. For instance, in New Orleans, in lieu of the traditional Mardi Gras parades, residents turned their houses into “floats.”

Members of the Krewe of Rex King of Carnival parade down St. Charles Avenue Mardi Gras Day on March 5, 2019 in New Orleans, Louisiana.
Sean Gardner/Getty Images

Why do people fast during Lent?

Most people know Lent as a time to fast from something — chocolate, alcohol, sex, and social media are all popular choices in the US.

Not everyone fasts during Lent; many evangelical churches haven’t traditionally observed the church calendar, though the practice has grown more popular in America in the past few years. LifeWay Research, which studies subjects of interest to churchgoers and pastors, found that in 2017, 61 percent of Catholics planned to fast during Lent, while 28 percent of evangelicals intended to fast. (In 2014, the same study found that only 16 percent of evangelicals planned to fast during Lent.)

Some people who observe Lent don’t fast at all, electing instead to add a spiritual practice during the 40 days, such as regular church attendance, prayer, giving to charity, or performing community service.

Archbishop of Washington Cardinal Wuerl Celebrates Ash Wednesday Mass At DC's Cathedral Of St. Matthew The Apostle
An Ash Wednesday service at St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington, DC.
Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

Western Christianity typically allows observers to pick whatever they want to fast from (as opposed to stricter fasts observed by other denominations and religions), based on a person’s understanding of what earthly comforts distract them from worship or are crutches that prevent them from fully understanding their own sinfulness. Protestants in particular tend to avoid specific church-mandated practices when it comes to fasts (we can probably thank Martin Luther for that), so practices vary widely.

Some Catholics keep a more rigid version of the fast. The most notable and well-known practice is abstaining from eating meat on Fridays, sometimes in addition to giving up something else for Lent. This observance varies widely by parish and from individual to individual — some Catholics fast from meat every Friday throughout the year, in a mini-observance of Jesus’s death every week.

But even less strict Catholics may fast from meat on Fridays during Lent, and all Catholics are encouraged to skip meat on Good Friday. (Fish is permitted, for reasons that are fascinating and somewhat arcane, which is why those who went to Catholic school often grew up eating fish at lunch on Friday, and why church-hosted fish frys are a popular Friday occurrence during Lent. It basically has to do with the ancient world’s conception of fish, as well as some other practical reasons — though eating fish took a political turn at the time of Henry VIII.) Prayer and almsgiving (giving extra money to the poor) are also emphasized during Catholic Lent observance.

Orthodox Christianity is far more strict about the fast. In fact, strict Orthodox observers fast from meat, fish, eggs, dairy products, olive oil, and alcohol every Wednesday and Friday. During Lent, a fairly complicated fast is observed: Every weekday, Orthodox Christians abstain from all of those products.

Additionally, during the first week of Lent, worshippers may fast entirely from Monday morning through Wednesday evening, and then observe the strict fast the rest of the week and throughout the Lenten period. Wine and oil are added on weekends in the second through sixth weeks. And Orthodox worshippers may fast from Thursday night through Saturday night before Easter. (Observance can vary from individual to individual.)

Lenten practices are why we have Easter eggs — the faithful would abstain from eggs and dairy during Lent, but in the days before refrigeration, the dairy then would spoil. Eggs, however, keep fresh much longer and would still be good when it was time to break the fast.

Painting an Easter egg during an Easter Gift charity festival in central Moscow.
Vyacheslav Prokofyev/TASS via Getty Images

Do you have to be Christian to fast during Lent?

No. But your purpose for fasting will probably differ, depending on your motivation to participate.

Christianity is hardly the only religion in which fasting is part of the yearly observance. Muslims observe a month of sunrise-to-sunset fasting during Ramadan, and Jewish people may also mark high holidays with fasts, particularly Yom Kippur. Fasting is a big part of Hinduism, Buddhism, and many other religious traditions.

Why fasting? For most religious people, their faith and practice is about more than mental assent to a list of beliefs — it’s about the whole human experience, which includes the body. Fasting reconnects the body to the emotions, mind, and soul, often by interrupting our autopilot mode and recognizing the ways we self-medicate that might be destructive to our souls.

That’s probably why some nonreligious people have picked up on Lent. Writing at Talking Points Memo in 2015, writer Monica Potts explained why she observes Lent, even though she’s no longer religious:

If everyone celebrates Lent the way they celebrate Christmas, it could just seem like another way Christianity is taking over. But I think nonbelievers reclaiming the best parts of religious traditions does the opposite, and reestablishes American morals outside of organized religion.

I still give up sweets for Lent every year, and sometimes alcohol or meat. I don’t always make it all the way through, but I don’t go around breaking Lent willy-nilly. I take it seriously. Partly, it’s a way to try to jumpstart post-winter weight loss. But there’s something more to it for me, a sense of connection with my own past and with others in my present. I look forward to it as much as I do the sun melting the snow. And when Easter Sunday comes April 5, the chocolate bunny I buy will taste better than it ought to.

This sentiment is echoed by everyone from atheists to lifestyle bloggers, who find the observance of Lent — without the religious aspects — helpful for developing self-control and hitting the reset button, in a manner similar to the observance of New Year’s resolutions. (That it falls so close to the New Year is part of the appeal: It’s a convenient time to pick up those broken resolutions again.)

That said: For Christians in particular, Lent isn’t meant to be a time for self-improvement (though that may be a byproduct). In fact, the idea of using Lent to improve yourself — even your spiritual life — is considered the opposite of Lent’s purpose.

Lent is specifically designed to dismantle the egotistical ideas we sometimes have about ourselves, to identify the spots in our lives where we’ve grown arrogant or complacent, to remember that we are going to die someday, and to repent and renew our dependence on God. Lent is meant to be uncomfortable. And it’s meant to end in gratefulness.

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