Lent 101

A Primer on Lent in the Catholic Church

Lent: A Sign of Contradiction

Ash Wednesday
Catholics pray during an Ash Wednesday Mass at the Cathedral of Saint Matthew the Apostle. Win McNamee/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Of all of the liturgical seasons in the Catholic Church, Lent is the one that is the most obvious, both to Catholics and to our non-Catholic friends. While the Easter season is longer, most people no longer observe it in any meaningful way once the Octave of Easter (Divine Mercy Sunday) has passed. Advent has been subsumed into the "holiday shopping season"; Christmas is over almost before it has begun. Only the 40 days of Lent remain today as a sign of contradiction, a period of prayer and penance that the world cannot help but notice.

Counting Lent

Pre-Lent, East and West

Mardi Gras Beads

From the earliest days of Christianity, the faithful have desired to prepare for Easter with an increasingly longer season of penance. The original fast for Easter ran from Good Friday until Easter Sunday; eventually, in one form or another, it extended to 70 days before Easter! In the West, this period of ramping up for Lent was known as Septuagesima; in the East, it encompassed the four Sundays before Clean Monday, the first day of Lent in the Eastern Churches. During this time, the faithful would ease into the Lenten fast. In the final days before Lent began, the faithful would allow themselves one last feast, which is how the tradition of Carnivale—"goodbye, meat!"—or Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) began.

The Front Porch of Lent

The Lenten Calendar

Because Lent begins in the West 46 days before Easter (and, in the East, two days earlier), and Easter is a moveable feast (see How Is the Date of Easter Calculated? for more details), the period covered by Lent changes every year. Roughly speaking, Lent begins sometime in February or March, and ends sometime in March or April. And it encompasses two important feasts (Saint Patrick's Day and Saint Joseph's Day) and usually a third—the Annunciation of the Lord.

Other Important Dates During Lent

Ash Wednesday: Remember, Man, That Thou Art Dust

Pope Benedict XVI receives ashes at an Ash Wednesday 2011 Mass, Basilica of Santa Sabina, Rome.
Pope Benedict XVI receives ashes during the Ash Wednesday Mass at the Basilica of Santa Sabina, Rome, Italy, March 9, 2011. (Photo by Vatican Pool/Getty Images)

​One of the reasons why Lent is such an obvious season is, of course, the practice of beginning it, in the West, by distributing ashes to the faithful on Ash Wednesday, as a sign of our sinfulness and mortality. While Ash Wednesday is not a Holy Day of Obligation, it is a time when many Catholics who have slowly slipped away from the Church over the past year find themselves back in the pews, vowing to make their faith more central to their lives in preparation for Easter. 

Ash Wednesday Resources

Fasting and Abstinence

Empty Plate

In the past, Lent was observed with much greater rigor than it is today, especially through the practice of fasting and abstinence. Indeed, the traditional 40 days of Lent refers to the number of days on which fasting was required—all of the days from Ash Wednesday through Holy Saturday, inclusive, minus the Sundays, which are never days of fasting. Since Pope Paul VI changed the requirements for fasting and abstinence in 1966, fasting is required only on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, and abstinence only on Ash Wednesday and all of the Fridays of Lent (including Good Friday). But many of the faithful continue to observe the spirit of the older discipline, by such actions as voluntarily restricting their consumption of meat throughout Lent, or giving up something they enjoy for the full 40 days. And all restrictions—whether voluntary or imposed by the Church—are waived on great feasts of the Church, such as Saint Joseph's Day and the Annunciation of the Lord, which are treated like the Sundays in Lent.

More on Fasting and Abstinence

Prayer and Penance

Priest in Confessional

Fasting and abstinence, whether required or voluntary, are only tools and not ends in themselves. They prepare us physically for the greater spiritual work of prayer and penance, which should take place throughout Lent. The practices of the Church reflect this: Roman Catholics do not sing the Alleluia during Lent as a form of penance and a preparation for the great joy of the Easter Vigil, when the Alleluia will be sung once more. The Church requires us to receive Communion during the Easter season—our Easter Duty—and so She strongly encourages us to make a full, complete, and contrite Confession sometime during Lent in preparation. We should make a diligent effort to pray more often in Lent, and if we aren't sure how to start, we can look to the Eastern Churches, which recite the Prayer of Saint Ephrem the Syrian many times each day during Lent. (Another good option: The Church offers a plenary indulgence every Friday during Lent to those who recite the Prayer Before a Crucifix). Eastern Christians also use Lent as a time to pray for the dead more frequently, thus offering up their Lenten sacrifices and struggles for their departed friends and family and reaffirming the Communion of the Saints.

Lenten Prayer and Penance

Spiritual Reading for Lent

A Catholic priest holds a Bible and rosary in prayer. (Photo © Tom Le Goff/Getty Images)
A Catholic priest holds a Bible and rosary in prayer. (Photo © Tom Le Goff/Getty Images)

While prayer and penance advance our spiritual life, many Catholics desire to add other practices during Lent that they regard as more "positive." Attending daily Mass when you can is a very good way to do so (as is weekly Confession); another is to take part in the Church's daily prayer, the Liturgy of the Hours (or Divine Office). While attempting to dive into the Liturgy of the Hours as a whole can be a bit intimidating, praying Morning Prayer or Evening Prayer is a good way to get used to it, as is doing the daily scripture readings from the Office of the Readings (part of the Liturgy of the Hours). You don't need to buy any books; I've provided the readings, and a brief commentary for each day, in the links below. My family and I do each day's reading every night after dinner. Don't worry if you have young children—they will find the readings enthralling, especially if you follow these tips.

Daily Readings From the Liturgy of the Hours

Passiontide, Holy Week, and the Triduum

Pope Benedict XVI washes feet during the Mass of the Lord's Supper on Holy Thursday 2012.
Pope Benedict XVI washes feet during the mass of the Lord's Supper at St. John Lateran on Holy Thursday 2012, Rome, Italy. Vatican Pool/Getty Images

The most frustrating part of Lent may be how short it seems. Just as we finally hit our stride—just as we manage to become diligent in our Lenten sacrifices and our prayer life, and finally feel like we're making progress in the spiritual works we've added—Holy Week is suddenly upon us, and Easter is just a week away. The liturgical season of Lent (though not the fast!) draws to a close with the start of the Easter Triduum, giving us one last chance to prepare ourselves for Christ's Resurrection.

The Final Days of Lent

Holy Thursday

The Last Supper - Duccio di Buoninsegna

The Easter (or Paschal) Triduum begins with the Mass of the Lord's Supper on Holy Thursday, when we commemorate the institution of the Eucharist, the priesthood, and the Mass. At the end of the Mass of the Lord's Supper, the Body of Christ is removed from the tabernacle in the church and, at the end of a procession, is placed on a special altar for reverence, while the main altar is stripped bare. All of this calls to mind the beginning of the events of Christ's Passion—going with His disciples to the Garden of Gethsemane, praying to His Father that the cup of sacrifice might pass Him by, and then being delivered over to the Sanhedrin through the betrayal of Judas, with a kiss.

More on Holy Thursday

Good Friday

Crucifixion Stained Glass

Good Friday dawns with Christ in the hands of His enemies, and this day is the only day of the year on which the Church does not celebrate a Mass with a consecration. The Eucharist represents not only the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross but His Resurrection; and so Communion on Good Friday is distributed using hosts that were consecrated at the Mass of the Lord's Supper the night before. At the end of the Good Friday liturgy, the main tabernacle remains open to signify Christ's departure from this world.

More on Good Friday

Holy Saturday

Entombment of Christ
The Entombment of Christ, c. 1380. Russian fresco. Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

And then, on Holy Saturday, we wait. As the Lenten fast draws to a close, no Mass is celebrated during the day; the Easter Vigil Mass, held after sundown, marks the beginning of Easter Sunday and the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. 

More on Holy Saturday

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ThoughtCo. "Lent 101." Learn Religions, Oct. 29, 2020, learnreligions.com/lent-101-542504. ThoughtCo. (2020, October 29). Lent 101. Retrieved from https://www.learnreligions.com/lent-101-542504 ThoughtCo. "Lent 101." Learn Religions. https://www.learnreligions.com/lent-101-542504 (accessed January 24, 2021).