Lent is the Christian season of preparation before Easter. In Western Christianity, Ash Wednesday marks the first day, or the start of the season of Lent, which begins 40 days prior to Easter (Sundays are not included in the count).
Lent is a time when many Christians prepare for Easter by observing a period of fasting, repentance, moderation and spiritual discipline. The purpose is to set aside time for reflection on Jesus Christ – his suffering and his sacrifice, his life, death, burial and resurrection.
Not all Christian churches observe Lent. Lent is mostly observed by the Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian and Anglican denominations, and also by Roman Catholics. Eastern Orthodox churches observe Lent or Great Lent, during the 6 weeks or 40 days preceding Palm Sunday with fasting continuing during the Holy Week of Orthodox Easter. Lent for Eastern Orthodox churches begins on Monday (called Clean Monday) and Ash Wednesday is not observed.
The Bible does not mention the custom of Lent, however, the practice of repentance and mourning in ashes is found in 2 Samuel 13:19; Esther 4:1; Job 2:8; Daniel 9:3; and Matthew 11:21.
Lent and fasting seem to go together naturally in some Christian churches, while others consider this form of self-denial a personal, private matter.
It’s easy to find examples of fasting in both the Old and New Testaments. In Old Testament times, fasting was observed to express grief. Starting in the New Testament, fasting took on a different meaning, as a way to focus on God and prayer.
Such a focus was Jesus Christ’s intent during his 40-day fast in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-2). In preparation for his public ministry, Jesus intensified his prayer with the addition of fasting.
Today, many Christian churches associate Lent with Moses’ 40 days on the mountain with God, the 40-year journey of the Israelites in the desert, and Christ’s 40-day period of fasting and temptation. Lent is a period of somber self-examination and penitence in preparation for Easter.
Lent and Fasting in the Catholic Church
The Roman Catholic Church has a long tradition of fasting and Lent. Unlike most other Christian churches, the Catholic Church has specific regulations for its members covering Lenten fasting .
Not only do Catholics fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, but they also abstain from meat on those days and all the Fridays during Lent. Fasting does not mean complete denial of food, however.
On fast days, Catholics are allowed to eat one full meal and two smaller meals which, together, do not constitute a full meal. Young children, the elderly, and persons whose health would be affected are exempt from fasting regulations.
Fasting is associated with prayer and alms giving as spiritual disciplines to take a person’s attachment away from the world and focus it on God and Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.
Lent and Fasting in the Eastern Orthodox Church
The Eastern Orthodox Church imposes the strictest rules for the Lenten fast. Meat and other animal products are prohibited the week before Lent. The second week of Lent, only two full meals are eaten, on Wednesday and Friday, although many lay people do not keep the full rules. Weekdays during Lent, members are asked to avoid meat, meat products, fish, eggs, dairy, wine and oil. On Good Friday, members are urged not to eat at all.
Lent and Fasting in Protestant Churches
Most Protestant churches do not have regulations on fasting and Lent. During the Reformation, many practices that might have been considered “works” were eliminated by reformers Martin Luther and John Calvin, so as not to confuse believers who were being taught salvation by grace alone.
In the Episcopal Church
Members are encouraged to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Fasting is also to be combined with prayer and alms giving. The Presbyterian Church makes fasting voluntary. Its purpose is to develop dependence on God, prepare the believer to face temptation, and to seek wisdom and guidance from God.
The Methodist Church
Has no official guidelines on fasting but encourages it as a private matter. John Wesley, one of the founders of Methodism, fasted twice a week. Fasting, or abstaining from such activities as watching television, eating favorite foods, or doing hobbies is also encouraged during Lent.
The Baptist Church
Encourages fasting as a way to draw closer to God, but considers it a private matter and has no set days when members should fast. The Assemblies of God consider fasting an important practice but purely voluntary and private. The church stresses that it does not produce merit or favor from God but is a way to heighten focus and gain self-control.
The Lutheran Church
Encourages fasting but imposes no requirements on its members to fast during Lent. The Augsburg Confession states, “We do not condemn fasting in itself, but the traditions which prescribe certain days and certain meats, with peril of conscience, as though such works were a necessary service.”