Lent officially begins this Wednesday, March 1. To outsiders, this period of penance and reflection can seem like one of the most austere and “medieval” of Christian practices. But while Lent’s roots are ancient (the regulations about Lent date back to 325 CE) there’s more than a little misinformation surrounding it. It’s not just the religious equivalent of a New Year’s diet.
1. All Christians Celebrate Lent
While in excess of a billion Christians observe Lent each year, not all Christians do. It is observed by Anglicans, Roman Catholics, Easter Orthodox, Lutherans, and Methodists. Whole swathes of Protestants don’t observe Lent — Baptists, Evangelicals, Pentecostalists, Latter Day Saints. Many other Protestant denominations recognize Lent, although the extent to which they alter their day-to-day lives varies greatly and is mostly a question of individual conscience. These disciplines include restricting food, giving up luxuries (including, in the 21st century, social media), and engaging in charitable work. Unlike Easter, it’s not a celebration.
2. Lent Commemorates the Death of Jesus
Because Lent begins (usually) with a cross-shaped smudge on the forehead and ends at Easter it’s easy to assume that Lent is about the death of Jesus. Some people even believe that Jesus went into the desert for 40 days and nights before his crucifixion. This is, in fact, incorrect. Lent is a period of preparation in which Christians remember the life of Jesus through prayer and penance, but it is more directly related to his ministry than his death.
The scriptural impetus for Lent is the forty days that Jesus spent in the wilderness after his baptism. The three earliest Gospels – Matthew, Mark, and Luke – all state that after his encounter with John the Baptist at the river Jordan, Jesus was led out into the desert by the Spirit (in the Gospel of Mark the Greek reads that Jesus was “kicked out” or “driven” into the desert by the Spirit). There he spent 40 days and night being tempted by Satan before calling the disciples in Galilee. New Testament scholars compare the period Jesus spends in the desert to the forty days that Moses spent talking with God on Mount Sinai in Exodus. In other words, we’re imitating Jesus imitating Moses. Or, put differently, forty days is the standard time period for significant spiritual events.
3. Lent is 40 Days Long
That said, modern Lent isn’t actually forty days long. Ash Wednesday to Holy Saturday is actually 46 days. Ash Wednesday to Holy Thursday is forty-four (more on that below). The reason that people think about it as a forty-day event is that those Christians who observe Lent don’t count Sundays. Because Sundays are celebrations of the death and resurrection of Jesus they are automatically considered days of joy and cannot be considered days of fasting. Which does mean that, technically, those who are “giving up” things for Lent can break their fasts on Sundays, although the Church does not promote the idea of “cheat days.”
4. Catholics Give Up Meat During Lent
If there is one thing Lent is known for it’s fasting. It has a reputation for being a period of self-restraint, particularly when it comes to food. So much so that priests will regularly tell parishioners that Lent is not just an excuse to diet. One of the biggest myths about Lent is that Catholics can’t eat meat, but this is only partially true.
According to the canons of the Catholic Church, all Catholics over the age of 14 must abstain from meat on Fridays in Lent. Failure to observe this is sinful unless you have a good excuse (sickness, pregnancy, breast feeding, extreme manual labor, etc). Interestingly, if you’re attending a meal and cannot avoid eating without causing your host and fellow guests embarrassment then you are permitted to break your fast. Everyone over the age of 18 is required to fast on the same days. Technically, fasting and abstaining are not the same thing: fasting means restricting the amount of food you eat (usually to one main and two small meals). Abstinence, when applied to meat (or, sex or anything else for that matter) means giving that thing up entirely.
This doesn’t mean that fasting and abstaining from meat are easy to do: some scholars have hypothesized that during the medieval period (when regulations were tougher) women would breastfeed for longer than necessary so that they could avoid fasting during Lent.
If all of this seems strict, bear in mind that in the early Church, Christians fasted every Wednesday and Friday. And, to this day, Orthodox Christians go vegan and give up alcohol and olive oil during Lent.
Collectively, giving up meat on Fridays in Lent has been good for non-Christians (and, of course, animals). The McDonalds Filet-O-Fish owes its existence to pious Catholics. Lou Groen, the Montfort Heights, Ohio, store owner who invented the sandwich, came up with the idea because the local population was 87% Catholic. While executives were initially skeptical of the idea, a competition held on Good Friday of 1962 proved that the market was hungry for fish. Those who like it have Lent to thank.
5. Lent ends on Easter Sunday
Given the hardships associated with it you would think that everyone would know when Lent ends. Not so: most people think that Lent ends on Easter Sunday (or perhaps after the service that takes place the night before, on Easter Saturday) but Lent actually ends on Holy Thursday. On the Thursday of Holy Week, Christians remember the Last Supper (the final meal that Jesus ate with his disciples before his arrest). Liturgically speaking, the Easter triduum (literally “three days”) that make up Easter begins with the service that commemorates this meal. This means that Lent technically ends on Holy Thursday.
But if you thought that this meant you could take up drinking and smoking again on Good Friday, you’re out of luck: it’s a day of abstinence and fasting. Only pregnancy or illness will get you off the hook.
If you look hard enough, though, there are loopholes: the rules governing abstinence from meat do not include liquids made from meat, like soup. And while food is restricted on fast days, liquids are not. You decide for yourself whether “no one said I couldn’t have milkshakes” seems like a reasonable excuse for a penitent. But don’t expect a great deal of sympathy from your priest.