Lent is a solemn religious observance in the liturgical calendar of many Christian denominations. The traditional purpose of Lent is spiritual growth through prayer, penance, repentance of sins, almsgiving, atonement and self-denial. Lent is traditionally described as lasting forty days in commemoration of the forty days which, according to the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus spent, before beginning his public ministry, fasting in the desert, where He endured temptation by the Devil.
The earliest official mention of Lent in the history of the Christian Church comes from the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD. Although the Council of Nicaea is best known for formulating the Church’s profession of faith – the Nicene Creed, the Council also issued twenty canons of a practical nature, the fifth of these canons speaks of Lent. In the original Greek the word used for Lent in this fifth canon is Σαρακοστή with the same meaning as Latin Quadragesima, which means ‘forty’. Much earlier, Christians had introduced Easter Sunday to celebrate Christ’s resurrection. Soon afterwards, a period of two or three days preparation, specially commemorating Christ’s passion and death – the ‘Holy Week’ part of Lent today – had been adopted by various Christian communities. But the first mention of a preparatory period lasting the forty days comes from this fifth canon of Nicaea. At the time of the Council of Nicaea, the Church was still united before the sad division in the eleventh century into Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy.
In the western praxis of the Church, Lent begins today (Ash Wednesday) and covers a period of approximately six weeks before Easter Sunday. Its institutional purpose is heightened in the annual commemoration of Holy Week, marking the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus. Many of the faithful commit to fasting or giving up certain types of luxuries as a form of penitence while adding a Lenten spiritual discipline to draw themselves near to God. The Stations of the Cross, a devotional commemoration of Christ’s carrying the Cross and of his execution, are often observed on Fridays. The Church of the West traditionally removes flowers from the altars, while crucifixes, religious statues, and other elaborate religious symbols are often veiled in violet fabrics in solemn penitential observance.
For members of the Eastern Orthodox Church, the season called Great Lent begins with Clean Monday on February 23rd in preparation for the celebration of Pascha (Easter) on April 12th. Lent is a spiritual journey with the goal of meeting the risen Lord Jesus, Who reunites us with the Heavenly Creator. God is always waiting to greet us with outstretched arms. During this period of repentance, the Church teaches us how to be united (theosis) with God by using the two great means of repentance — prayer and fasting. The Orthodox ethos of the Great Fast (Lent) is told to us by St. Dorotheus of Gaza, likening it to a wake up call, ‘a coming to one’s self’ to find meaning for the entire year. The “great and saving forty days” are to wake us up to all times and seasons of all year. Lent is not meant for God, but Lent is made for humanity. In his Discourses and Sayings, St. Dorotheus tells us:
“You see, God gave us these holy days so that by diligence in abstinence, in the spirit of humility and repentance, a person may be cleansed of the sins of the whole year and the soul relieved of its burden. Purified the person goes forward to the holy day of the resurrection, and being made a new through the change of heart induced by the fast..”
As we each find our own ways to mark the season of Lent, we follow in the footsteps of centuries of Christians who have traditionally spent time preparing to celebrate the suffering, death, burial and resurrection of Christ.