Everything You Wanted to Know about Lent
Father Francis J. Peffley
What is Lent? Historically, Lent is the 40-day period before Easter, which the Church uses
to prepare for the celebration of our Lord Jesus Christs Resurrection on Easter Sunday.
When does Lent begin? Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, which is the day on which the faithful
have their foreheads signed with ashes in the form of a Cross. It ends at noon on Holy Saturday. The 40 days excludes the five
Sundays of Lent.
Why do Catholics have their foreheads marked with a cross on Ash Wednesday? Because in the
Bible a mark on the forehead is a symbol of a person's ownership. By having their foreheads marked with the Sign of a Cross, this
symbolizes that the person belongs to Jesus Christ, Who died on a Cross. This is in imitation of the spiritual mark or seal that is put
on a Christian in Baptism, when he is delivered from slavery to sin and the Devil, and made a servant of righteousness and Christ
(Romans 6:3-18). It is also in imitation of the way the righteous are described in the book of Revelation:
"Do not harm the earth or the sea or the trees, till we have sealed the servants of our God upon
their foreheads." (Revelation 7:3)
Why is the signing done with ashes? Because ashes are a biblical symbol of mourning and
penance. In Bible times the custom was to fast, wear sackcloth, sit in dust and ashes, and put dust and ashes on one's head. While we no
longer normally wear sackcloth or sit in dust and ashes, the customs of fasting and putting ashes on one's forehead as a sign of mourning
and penance have survived to this day. These are two of the key distinctions of Lent. In fact, Ash Wednesday is a day not only for putting
ashes on one's head, but also a day of fasting.
Is there another significance to the ashes? Yes. They also symbolize death and so remind us
of our mortality. Thus when the priest uses his thumb to sign one of the faithful with the ashes, he says,
"Remember, that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return," which is
modeled after God's address to Adam (Genesis 3:19; Job 34:15; Psalm 90:3; Psalm 104:29, Ecclesiastes 3:20). This also echoes the words
at a burial, "Ashes to ashes; dust to dust," which is based on God's
words to Adam and Abraham's confession, "I am nothing but dust and ashes"
(Genesis 18:27). It is thus a reminder of our mortality and our need to repent before this life is over and we face our Creator.
Where do the ashes used on Ash Wednesday come from? They are made by burning palm fronds
which have been saved from the previous year's Palm Sunday, they are then blessed by a priest -- blessed ashes having been used in God's
rituals since the time of Moses (Numbers 19:9-10, 17).
Why are ashes from the previous year's Palm Sunday used? Because Palm Sunday was when the
people rejoiced at Jesus' triumphal entrance to Jerusalem. They celebrated His arrival by waving palm fronds, little realizing that He
was coming to die for their sins. By using palms from Palm Sunday, it is a reminder that we must not only rejoice of Jesus' coming but
also regret the fact that our sins made it necessary for Him to die for us in order to save us from Hell.
Why are Sundays excluded from the reckoning of the forty days? Because Sunday is the day on
which Christ rose, making it an inappropriate day to fast and mourn our sins. On Sunday we must celebrate Christ's Resurrection for our
salvation. It is Friday on which we commemorate His death for our sins. The Sundays of the year are days of celebration and the Fridays
of the year are days of penance.
Why is Lent forty days long? Because 40 days is a traditional number of discipline, devotion, and
preparation in the Bible. Moses stayed on the Mountain of God 40 days (Exodus 24:18, 34:28), Elijah traveled 40 days before he reached
the cave where he had his vision (1 Kings 19:8), Nineveh was given 40 days to repent (Jonah 3:4), and most importantly, prior to
undertaking His ministry, Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness praying and fasting (Matthew 4:2). He also spent 40 weeks in His
Since Lent is a period of prayer and fasting, it is fitting for Christians to imitate their Lord with a 40-day period. Christ
used a 40-day period of prayer and fasting to prepare for His ministry, which culminated in His death and resurrection, and thus it is
fitting for Christians to imitate Him with a 40-day period of prayer and fasting to prepare for the celebration of His ministry's climax,
Good Friday (His crucifixion) and Easter Sunday (His Resurrection).
Thus the Catechism of the Catholic Church states: "'For we have not a High Priest
Who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but One Who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sinning' [Hebrews 4:15].
By the solemn forty days of Lent the Church unites herself each year to the mystery of Jesus in the desert."
Why are the forty days called Lent? They are called Lent because that is
the Old English word for Spring. Not just because it is the season of the year during which it falls, but because Lent is the Churchs
Springtime during which we start fresh. This is something unique to English. In almost all other languages, Lents name is a
derivative of the Latin term, Quadragesima, or
"the forty days."
What is a day of Fast and Abstinence? Under current canon law in the Western Rite of the Church,
a day of Fast is one on which Catholics who are eighteen to sixty years old are required to keep a limited fast. In this country, one may eat a
single, normal meal and have two snacks, so long as these snacks do not add up to a second meal. Children are not required to fast, but
their parents must ensure they are properly educated in the spiritual practice of fasting. Those with medical conditions requiring a
greater or more regular food intake can easily be dispensed from the requirement of fasting by their pastor. A day of Abstinence is a day on
which Catholics fourteen years or older are required to abstain from eating meat (under the current discipline in America, fish, eggs,
milk products, and condiments or foods made using animal fat are permitted in the Western Rite of the Church, though not in the Eastern
Rites.) Again, persons with special dietary needs can easily be dispensed by their pastor.
Is there a biblical basis for abstaining from meat as a sign of repentance? Yes. The book of Daniel states:
"In the third year of Cyrus king of Persia . . . 'I, Daniel, mourned for three weeks.
I ate no choice food; no meat or wine touched my lips; and I used no lotions at all until the three weeks
were over.'" (Daniel 10:1-3)
By giving up good things and denying them to ourselves we encourage an attitude of humility, free ourselves from dependence on them,
cultivate the spiritual discipline of being willing to make personal sacrifices, and remind ourselves of the importance of spiritual goods over
earthly goods. Since the Catholic Church only requires abstinence from meat on a temporary basis, it clearly does not regard meat is immoral.
Instead, it regards it as the giving up of a good thing (which in less economically developed regions -- including the whole world until very
recently -- was expensive and thus eaten at festive occasions, making it a sign of rejoicing) to attain a spiritual goal.
On what basis does the Church have the authority to establish days of Fast and Abstinence? On the
authority of Jesus Christ Who told the Leaders of His Church, "Whatever you bind on earth will
be bound in Heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in Heaven" (Matthew 16:19, 18:18). The language
of binding and loosing (in part) was a Rabinnic way of referring to the ability to establish binding halakah or rules of conduct for the
faith community. To approach the issue from another angle, every family has the authority to establish particular family devotions for
its members. Thus if the parents decide that the family will engage in a particular devotion at a particular time (say, Bible reading
after supper), it is a sin for the children to disobey and skip the devotion for no good reason. In the same way, the Church as the
family of God has the authority to establish its own family devotion, and it is a sin for the members of the Church to disobey and skip
the devotions for no good reason (though of course if the person has a good reason, the Church dispenses him immediately).
In addition to Ash Wednesday, are any other days during Lent days of Fast or Abstinence?
Yes. All Fridays during Lent are days of Abstinence. Also, Good Friday, the day on which Christ was crucified, is another day of both
Fast and Abstinence. All days in Lent are appropriate for fasting or abstaining, but canon law does not require fasting on those days.
Such fasting or abstinence is voluntary, like a freewill offering.
Why are Fridays during Lent days of abstinence? This is because Jesus died for our sins on
Friday, making it an especially appropriate day of mourning our sins (just as Sunday, the day on which He rose for our salvation is an
especially appropriate day to rejoice) by denying ourselves something we enjoy. During the rest of the year Catholics in this country
are permitted to use a different act of Penance on Friday in place of Abstinence, though all Fridays are days of Penance on which we are
required to do something expressing sorrow for our sins, just as Sundays are holy days on which we are required to worship and celebrate
God's great gift of salvation.
Are acts of repentance appropriate on other days during Lent? Yes. Thus the Code of Canon Law
"All Fridays through the year and the time of Lent are Penitential days and time throughout the
universal Church" (CIC 1250).
What are appropriate activities for ordinary days during Lent? Giving up
something we enjoy for Lent, doing physical or spiritual Acts of Mercy for others, Prayer, Fasting and Abstinence, attention to our
duties, and going to Confession and other acts expressing repentance in general.
Why are Acts of Repentance appropriate at this time of year? Because it is the time leading
up to the commemoration of Our Lord's death for our sins and the commemoration of His Resurrection for our salvation. It is thus
especially appropriate to mourn the sins for which He died. Humans have an innate psychological need to mourn tragedies, and our sins
are tragedies of the greatest sort. Due to our fallen nature, humans also have a need to have set times in which to engage in behavior
(which is why we have Sundays as a set time to rest and worship, since we would otherwise be likely to forget to devote sufficient time
to rest and worship), it is appropriate to have set times of Repentance. Lent is one of those set times.
Is the custom of giving up something for Lent mandatory? No. However, it is a good and
beneficial custom, and parents or caretakers may choose to require it of their children to encourage their spiritual training, which is
their prime responsibility in the raising of their children.
Since Sundays are not counted in the forty days of Lent, does the custom of giving up something apply
to them? Customarily, no. However, since the giving up of something is voluntary to begin with, there is no
official rule concerning this aspect of it. Nevertheless, since Sundays are days of celebration, it is appropriate to suspend the Lenten
self-denial on them, in a spiritual and non-excessive way, we may celebrate the day of Our Lord's Resurrection so that that day and that
event may be contrasted with the rest of the days of Lent and the rest of the events of history. This heightened contrast deepens the
spiritual lessons taught by the rest of Lent.
Why is giving up something for Lent such a good and beneficial custom? By denying ourselves
something we enjoy, we discipline our Wills so that we are not slaves to our pleasures. Just as indulging the pleasure of eating leads to
physical flabbiness and, if this is great enough, an inability to perform in physically demanding situations, indulging in pleasure in
general leads to spiritual flabbiness and, if this is great enough, an inability to perform in spiritual demanding situations, we when
the demands of morality require us to sacrifice something pleasurable (such as sex before marriage or not within the confines of marriage)
or endure hardship (such as being scorned or persecuted for the faith). By disciplining the Will to refuse pleasures when they are not
sinful, a Habit is developed which allows the Will to refuse pleasures when they are sinful. There are few better ways to keep one's
priorities straight than by periodically denying ourselves things of lesser priority to show us that they are not necessary and focus
our attention on what is necessary.
Is the denying of pleasure an end in itself? No. It is only a means to an end. By training
ourselves to resist temptations when they are not sinful, we train ourselves to reject temptations when they are sinful. We also express
our sorrow over having failed to resist sinful temptations in the past.
Is there such a thing as denying ourselves too many pleasures? Most definitely. First, God
made human life contingent on certain goods, such as food, and to refuse to enjoy enough of them has harmful consequences. For example,
if we do not eat enough food it can cause physical damage or (in the extreme, even death). Just as there is a balance between eating too
much food and not eating enough food, there is a balance involved in other goods. Second, if we do not strike the right balance and deny
ourselves goods God meant us to have then it can generate resentment toward God, which is a spiritual sin just as much as those of engaging
in excesses of good things. Thus one can be led into sin either by excess or by defect in the enjoyment of good things. Third, it can
decrease our effectiveness in ministering to others. Fourth, it can deprive us of the goods God gave us in order that we might praise Him.
Fifth, it constitutes the sin of ingratitude by refusing to enjoy the things God wanted us to have because He loves us. If a child
refused every gift his parent gave him, it would displease the parent, and if we refuse gifts God has given us, it displeases God because He
loves us and wants us to have them.
Aside from Ash Wednesday, which begins Lent, what are its principal events?
There are a variety of saints' days which fall during Lent, and some of these change from year to year since the dates of Lent itself
change based on when Easter falls. However, the Sundays during the Lenten season commemorate special events in the life of Our Lord, such as
His Transfiguration and His Triumphal Entrance into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, which begins Holy Week. Holy Week climaxes with Holy Thursday,
on which Christ celebrated the first Mass, Good Friday, on which He was Crucified, and Holy Saturday -- the last day of Lent -- during
which Our Lord lay in the Tomb before His Resurrection on Easter Sunday, the first day after Lent.