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Lent is a practice of preparation before Easter originating with the Apostles.  It is Apostolic tradition that all christians perform prayer and penance.  Penance takes the form of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.  As it came from the Apostles, it is a universal practice in the Church.  

The Oriental (Byzantine and Orthodox) Churches call it Great Lent.  They have variations in the beginning of Lent that are common to earlier practice in the Latin Rite.  

One thing is consistent across the universal Church:  fasting is the cornerstone of Lent.

The Length of Lent, or "Why is Lent 40 days long?"

The length of Lent has varied throughout the Church's history.  In the beginning, it was a short fast of a few days.  This was the Apostles way of doing what Our Lord told them.  But it rapidly became modeled on Our Lord's 40 days in the desert.  By the time of the Council of Nicea (325 A.D.), it was universally accepted.  Lent is a time of prayer and fasting, just like Jesus in the desert.

Our Lord Said that We Would Fast

The Pharisees sought to trap Our Lord on the question that His disciples were not fasting like the others.  

 "[18] And the disciples of John and the Pharisees used to fast; and they come and say to him: Why do the disciples of John and of the Pharisees fast; but thy disciples do not fast?  [19] And Jesus saith to them: Can the children of the marriage fast, as long as the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast.  [20] But the days will come when the bridegroom shall be taken away from them; and then they shall fast in those days."
(Mk. ii 18-20)

Fasting back then was clearly restricting food, both the kind of food and the amount.  Moreover, as Our Lord predicted, our fast would be tied to His passion.  It makes sense that the early fathers saw Lent as a time as a time to consider how they took Our Lord with the fast.  Fasting in lent is therefore tied directly to desiring Jesus to return.

What is Fasting?

People today confuse the meaning of lent fasting by trying to make it about something other than food.  While they may be practicing self-denial (mortification), it is best to keep the use of the word fasting in relation to its actual definition:  the regulation of food and drink.

Fasting is "a form of penance that imposes limits on the kind or quantity of food or drink." If you aren't doing this during all of lent, you're doing lent wrong!

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For more information on Fasting during Lent and Related Articles on modern practice:

Lent Begins on Ash Wednesday

In modern times, that is, since 800 A.D. or so, the Latin Church has settled on lent beginning on Ash Wednesday.  Because the Church used to impose fasting on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, Wednesday was day to begin the fast and ensure that one could get 40 days of fasting done before Easter.  

Because Easter moves every year according to the lunar cycle, Ash Wednesday is determined by counting backwards from Easter.  The Sundays on the old calendar were named by how many day left until Easter.  Thus, Sexagesima Sunday means sixty, and it referred to 60 days remaining until Easter. Ash Wednesday fell on the Wednesday after Quinquagesima Sunday (50 days).  

Eastern Great Lent Begins at the End of Quinquagesima (Cheesefare Sunday), on "Clean Monday"

Eastern Churches generally settle on the beginning of Great Lent on Clean Monday.  This is the Monday after Quinquagesima.  On Clean Monday, no food is eaten and no drink but water is taken. It remains to this day as the starkest general precept of Lent across the universal Church.  But by beginning on the Monday, 

Pre-Lent Before Ash Wednesday

Septuagesima Sunday (70 days) marked the beginning of "pre lent" as a period where people would begin to take on practices to prepare for the upcoming fast of lent.  This would include eating the remaining meat sometime during the week after Septuagesima Sunday (Sexagesima Sunday called "Meatfare Sunday" in Eastern churches because it is the last day to eat meat before Easter).  And eating the remaining eggs and dairy items in the following week, ending on Quinquagesima Sunday, or "Cheesefare" in the Eastern churches.

Cultural traditions still reflect this practice as having been universal.  For instance, in Poland, Pączki day occurs on the Thursday before Ash Wednesday, because the Sunday would be the last day to eat eggs and milk used to make the confection.  Similarly, carnival (etym. carni-vale, "good bye to meat") starts around Septuagesima.  Today, because Ash Wednesday is the norm, "Fat Tuesday" is the general last carnival day.

Why Do They Rub Ashes into Foreheads?

The practice of imposing ashes goes back into the 4th century.  The palms from Palm Sunday of the prior year are burnt in fire.  The ashes remaining from that are blessed at Mass on Ash Wednesday and the priest imposes (rubs) them onto the foreheads of the faithful and says to the person:

Ashes Mark the Purpose of Lent

On Ash Wednesday, the priest tells you: "remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return."  The priest rubs ashes into your forehead making the sign of the cross.  Ash Wednesday is not a "celebration."  Those words are from Genesis 3:19.  It is a reminder that death was brought into the world by sin.  

The imposition of ashes on the forehead has been celebrated the same way since at least the 9th century.  That means Ash Wednesday was the same 1200 years ago!  

In the Roman Missal of yesteryear, there is a prayer in the Collect after distribution of ashes (Leonine, 5th c.):

"Grant us, O Lord, to begin the service of our Christian warfare with holy fasting; that as we are about to fight against spiritual powers of wickedness, we may be fortified by the aid of self-denial."

The Catholic Church is telling us that purpose of ashes on Ash Wednesday is to remind us that we are in warfare against spiritual powers of wickedness and our weapons of combat are the holy fast and self-denial.

The ashes of ash wednesday symbolize penance and mortality.  The palms used for palm sunday are burned in the fire. So the revelry of the past is burnt.  Mortality because the green leaves of yesteryear's celebration are now spent.  They directly remind us that we must purify ourselves with the fire of fasting and self denial before our days are spent (memento mori). 

Penance is necessary for all Christians

Fear should strike your heart at His words...

Jesus pantocrator from pammakaristos church

"Unless you do penance, you shall all likewise perish." Lk. xiii 3

Lent is a Season for Penance

The Catholic Church set aside Lent as the season of penance and prayer.  Lent provides the faithful with the way to fulfill this command of Our Lord to do penance.

The True Meaning of Lent is found in the words of Jesus to the Greeks.  He told them, "unless the seed fall to the ground and die, it cannot bring forth new life."  For Our Lord that death was His crucifixion.  For us, that death is penance — crucifying ourselves.  Lent is a time for us to punish ourselves for our sins and repent of our sinful nature (i.e. do penance).  The true meaning of lent is therefore found in this command of Our Lord to be sorrowful for our sins and the sins of others and make acts of reparation to God.  

Penance is an Act of Repentance for Lent

Fr. Hardon's Modern Catholic Dictionary defines Penance as

Penance is the "virtue or disposition of heart by which one repents of one's own sins and is converted to God."

Saint John the Baptist declared to all that they must repent for the Lord in coming.  Again, in each lent, the Church sets apart this time for us to re-focus our hearts on God's coming.  At Easter, when we commemorate the Resurrection of Our Lord.  If we prepared ourselves through lenten penance, we will be ready for His coming again.

It is also through this annual season of penance that we can "clean up" our souls.  Think of lent, in one sense, as Mother Church asking us to perform spring cleaning on the house of our soul.  That we will be ready to welcome Jesus, Risen from the dead, at Easter.

Lenten Penance is Punishment for Sins, Ours and Others

We pile up punishment for our sins.  If we were not attentive to intentionally doing penance in reparation for the sins we committed, we would slip and be liable for that punishment in purgatory.  By asking annually that each person do penance, Mother Church is ensuring that we focus on mitigating the punishment.   

Think of lent, in one sense, as Mother Church telling us to do spring cleaning on the house of our soul.  That we will be ready to welcome Jesus, Risen from the dead, at Easter.

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Penance is Good for You

While penance, when focused on a punishment, seems harsh to modern sensibilities, it is salutary in many ways.  It gives a good feeling of doing what we ought to do.  Just like the satisfaction of paying off a loan or obligation, penance helps us clear the decks of debts owed for our sins.

By making the sacrifices of lent, you are offering to God many things.  See the catechism on sacrifice in general.  Lent is here to give you focus on making a pleasing sacrifice to God.

Lent is a Season for Prayer

In addition to penance, the Church sets aside Lent for focusing on prayer.  Just as Our Lord fasted for forty days in the desert, He also prayed.

The Way of the Cross is a Special Lent Devotion

The Blessed Mother is credited as the source of the Way of the Cross, also called the Stations of the Cross.  Tradition says that she would often to walk in the steps of her Son to Calvary, pausing at the spots marked by some special incident. The early Christians flocked in crowds to the holy places to follow the Via Crucis. But when, in the Middle Ages, the Holy Land fell into the hands of the infidels, and the devout pilgrim could only visit the scenes of Our Lord’s sufferings at the risk of his life, the stations were erected in churches, and enriched by the Popes with large indulgences. St. Francis of Assisi contributed greatly to spread this devotion.

An excellent history and explanation of the Way of the Cross is right here in the Catechism section of the Bellarmine Forum Catechism Explained.  That article explains the indulgences for making the Way of the Cross, as well as how to obtain it.  

The Stations of the Cross (Via Crucis) are typically made on Fridays in lent.

Follow the way of the Cross on this page:

Pious Meditations for Lent Devotions

Apart from the Way of the Cross, the Church has often brought forward daily practices for the faithful in lent.  Among these are popular daily meditations that focus on Our Lord's passion.  Because we are to repent, do penance, and offer sacrifice to God in the days of lent, His Passion provides rich matter for our hearts and motives.  

An excellent set of daily meditations for Lent is right here on the Bellarmine Forum site:

Lent is a time for Almsgiving

Almsgiving is a work of mercy.  It is making a gift of one's means to the poor and needy.  Sometimes, we call it charitable giving today.  It has long held high regard in the Church as an expedient penance.

Almsgiving obtains for us the remission of our sins; that is to say the sinner obtains the grace of repentance.  There are so many good things that result from alsmgiving.  By almsgiving we make the poor our friends; they pray for us, and their prayers have great power with God.  God increases our own means and helps give us a healthy body (no joke, see the catechism link for this one).  And, we obtain eternal recompense for what we have voluntarily given.  Read more on Almsgiving in the Bellarmine Forum Catechism Explained.

 The mite box is a historical practice of churches to encourage almsgiving in lent.  

What should you "give up" for Lent?

The Minimum Fast Imposed by Law

In the wake of the constitution Paenitemini of Paul VI in 1966, the meaning of the law of fasting remained, but the extent of the obligation was changed.  This has been pretty confusing for modern Catholics in America.  Many believe that they no longer have to fast (as in regulate food and drink) throughout lent. This is because Paul VI made the minimum requirement of the Church law lower.  He did this so that we would not incur penalty if we slipped on the fast, but also to encourage us to do more.

In the consitution, “the law of fasting allows only one full meal a day, but does not prohibit taking some food in the morning and evening, while observing approved local custom as far as quantity and quality of food are concerned.”  

To the law of fast are bound those of the faithful who have completed their eighteenth year and up until the beginning of their sixtieth year. Prescribed days of fast and abstinence for the whole Church are Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.

Nevertheless, as with abstinence, so with fasting or other forms of penance, “It is up to the bishops, gathered in their episcopal conferences, to establish the norms...which they consider the most opportune and efficacious” (Paenitemini, III).

In the Eastern rites it is the right of the patriarch, together with the synod or supreme authority of every rite, to determine the days of fast and abstinence in accordance with the decree of the Second Vatican Council for Eastern Churches.

BOTTOM LINE: The only days that you must fast without penalty of law are Ash Wednesday and Good Friday

NOTE WELL: Fasting was not erased, in fact, Paul VI encourages us to do so.  If you are going to keep a 

St. Benedict started "Giving Something Up"

The idea of "giving something up for lent" was begin by Saint Benedict writing in the rules for his monks that they should do "something extra" for Our Lord.  This extra thing is done on top of the fast.

Already, but the 6th century, St. Benedict wrote on the concept of doing "something beyond".   In Rule 49, he says"

"In these days [of lent], therefore, let us add something beyond the wonted measure of our service, such as private prayers and abstinence in food and drink.  Let each on, over and above the measure prescribed for him, offer God something of his ownn freewill in the joy of the Holy Spirit."

This rule is the basis of people doing things like "giving up chocolate" for lent.  It's not that lent requires people to give up chocolate.  Rather, Church requires that we fast, pray, and give alms.  When someone says they are giving up chocolate, it is supposed to mean that they are doing that *in addition to* the fasting and abstinence.  It's a gift to Our Lord.

You can do anything extra to "give up" for lent, but we hope that this page about lent has encouraged you to do that on top of the minimum of fasting.  

After all, Our Lord Himself fasted for forty days, should you not do the same?

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