What is Lent and why does it last forty days?
Lent is a season of forty days, not counting Sundays, which begins on Ash Wednesday and ends on Holy Saturday. Lent comes from the Anglo Saxon word lencten, which means “spring.” The forty days represents the time Jesus spent in the wilderness, enduring the temptation of Satan and preparing to begin his ministry.
Lent is a time of repentance, fasting and preparation for the coming of Easter. It is a time of self-examination and reflection. In the early church, Lent was a time to prepare new converts for baptism. Today, Christians focus on their relationship with God, often choosing to give up something or to volunteer and give of themselves for others.
Sundays in Lent are not counted in the forty days because each Sunday represents a “mini-Easter” and the reverent spirit of Lent is tempered with joyful anticipation of the Resurrection.
What is the meaning of Lent?
Lent is a period of fasting, moderation, and self-denial traditionally observed by Catholics and some Protestant denominations. It begins with Ash Wednesday and ends with Easter Sunday. The length of the Lenten fast was established in the 4th century as 46 days (40 days, not counting Sundays). During Lent, participants eat sparingly or give up a particular food or habit. It’s not uncommon for people to give up smoking during Lent, or to swear off watching television or eating candy or telling lies. It’s six weeks of self-discipline.
Lent began as a way for Catholics to remind themselves of the value of repentance. The austerity of the Lenten season was seen as similar to how people in the Old Testament fasted and repented in sackcloth and ashes (Esther 4:1-3; Jeremiah 6:26; Daniel 9:3).
However, over the centuries Lenten observances have developed a much more “sacramental” value. Many Catholics believe that giving something up for Lent is a way to attain God’s blessing. But the Bible teaches that grace cannot be earned; grace is “the gift of righteousness” (Romans 5:17). Also, Jesus taught that fasting should be done discreetly: “When you fast, do not look somber 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). Jesus’ command to “wash your face” seems to conflict with the practice of rubbing ashes on one’s face on Ash Wednesday.
Fasting can be a good thing, and God is pleased when we repent of sinful habits. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with setting aside some time to focus on Jesus’ death and resurrection. However, repenting of sin is something we should be doing every day of the year, not just for the 46 days of Lent.
If a Christian wishes to observe Lent, he is free to do so. The key is to focus on repenting of sin and consecrating oneself to God. Lent should not be a time of boasting of one’s sacrifice or trying to earn God’s favor or increasing His love. God’s love for us could not be any greater than it already is.