What is Lent?

Lent is a forty-day liturgical season that initiates the most sacred part of the Christian year. Lent begins on Ash Wednesday and concludes on the Great Vigil of Easter. Sundays are not included in the forty-day count because every Sunday is a joyful celebration of our Lord’s resurrection. During Lent, Christians meditate with awe and thanksgiving on the great paschal mystery — the salvation God won for us sinners by the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.


The word Lent is apparently derived from the Old English lencten, which means “lengthen.” It refers to the lengthening of the daylight hours that occurs in the northern hemisphere as spring approaches. It is in this period of transition from late winter to early spring that the season of Lent falls.


The duration of the season of Lent is based on the ancient church custom of requiring catechumens to undergo a forty-day period doctrinal instruction and fasting before being baptized on the evening before Easter. This probationary period was called the quarantine (from the Latin word for forty). The number forty occurs frequently in both testaments of the Bible. It signifies the time that is required for discipline, testing, and separation prior to achieving a goal or new beginning. For example, we read in the Old Testament that it rained forty days and nights during the Great Flood (Genesis 7:12), Moses communed with God on Mount Sinai for forty days before receiving the Ten Commandments (Exodus 24:18), the people of Israel were forced to wander in the wilderness for forty years (Numbers 14:33-34), Elijah journeyed for forty days before he reached the cave at Horeb and had a vision of God (1 Kings 19:8-9), and the inhabitants of Nineveh fasted and repented for forty days in response to the preaching of Jonah (Jonah 3:4-5). The outstanding instances of the number forty in the New Testament are the account of Christ’s ordeal in the desert fasting, praying, and being tempted by the devil (Matthew 4:1-11; Mark 1:12-13; and Luke 4:1-13) and His various appearances to the apostles and others between His resurrection and ascension during which He strengthened their faith and prepared them for the coming of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:3).


Since Lent is a season of penitence, reflection, and prayer, worship during this time is solemn and restrained. The somber colors of purple and black replace the brighter white and green of the Epiphany season. Flowers are generally removed from the sanctuary. Songs of praise like the Gloria in Excelsis (“Glory in the highest”) and expressions of joy like Alleluia (“Praise the Lord”) are removed from the liturgy until Easter. Many churches hold special mid-week worship services (Wednesday evenings at Saint Paul’s) and offer devotional activities that help their members concentrate on the traditional Lenten disciplines of fasting, almsgiving (the giving of gifts of mercy), and prayer. The practice of these disciplines goes backĀ  to the early days of the church and are meant to help.