What is Lent?
The season of Lent is a Catholic liturgical season consisting of forty days (not including Sundays) of fasting, prayer, and penitence beginning on Ash Wednesday and concluding at sundown on Holy Thursday. It represents the 40 days Jesus spent fasting in the wilderness.
The official liturgical colour for the season of Lent is violet.
Ash Wednesday dates from at least the fourth century. During that century, penitents looking for forgiveness and re-entry into the community would dress in sackcloth and sprinkle ashes to show their repentance.
The custom of distributing ashes to everyone on Ash Wednesday came from imitation of the practice of wearing ashes by public penitents. Public penitents were those doing penance for sins such as murder, apostasy, and adultery. When they completed their public penance, they were able to be readmitted to communion with the Church. As Lent increasingly focused on the themes of repentance and renewal, Christians sensed their own need for repentance.
The Catholic Church, in an attempt to help Catholics do at least a minimum during Lent, asks all Catholics to fast and abstain from meat on certain days. Fasting means to limit food to one full meal a day with the possibility of two smaller meals (not adding up to a full meal) as needed. Abstinence means not eating meat, although fish is allowed. Catholics are required to observe all days of fasting and abstinence which is one of the precepts of the Church.
Those 14 years of age or older are to abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday and all the Fridays of Lent. Catholics between the ages of 16 and 59 are also to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. They may eat one full meal on these days, and two small meals to maintain strength. The two small meals together must not equal the size of one full meal. If one’s work or health make it inadvisable to fast or abstain from meat, they are not obligated to do so. This includes mental health: Fasting may be harmful for someone who struggles with an eating disorder. Such a person might do an alternate penance on the days of fasting. Pregnant and nursing women are exempt from the fast.
At one time, people gave up all animal products and during the whole Lenten season. The Eastern Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches still follow this rule. Since chickens continue to produce eggs and cows milk, the custom developed to make the milk into cheese and colour the eggs so that when Easter arrived, no food would be wasted.
Many Catholics were taught as children to “give up something” for Lent. The sacrifices in Lent are really penance. Throughout our history, Christians have found prayer, fasting, and almsgiving to be an important part of repentance and renewal. Many Catholics now add something during Lent rather than giving up something, either to address personal habits that need work or to add some outreach to others in need.
The Church does not specifically require that we do something beyond the requirements of fasting and abstinence. To do nothing, however, would certainly not be in keeping with the spirit of Lent. Furthermore, the sacrifices and extra things we do for Lent help us grow closer to Christ. We are missing out on so many graces if we do not participate fully in Lent. It is not necessary to be perfect, but we should put forth a good effort.
A good practice is to do something extra in prayer, something involving fasting (whether limiting our intake of food or giving up something non food-related), and something involving almsgiving (giving money or goods to the needy or doing extra acts of charity).