Lent is the time of the year allocated by Christians to come to terms with what is most important in their spiritual journey. It starts on Ash Wednesday and continues for forty-six days (forty days not counting Sundays) until Easter Sunday.
The season of Lent is a preparation for the celebration of Easter, the day of celebration of Jesus Christís victory over death. Lent is a period of self-examination, alms-giving, prayer and abstention. The duration of Lent reflects the time when Jesus went into the wilderness for 40 days of meditation before beginning his ministry.
All Fridays of Lent are days of abstinence, when those 14 years of age and older are obliged not to eat meat. Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are days of fast, when all those from ages eighteen through fifty-nine refrain from eating between meals and limit their eating to one full meal and two lighter meals for the day. Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are also days of abstinence. Individuals for which fasting or abstaining may be considered harmful are not obliged to fast or abstain, but should perform some other act of penance or charity.
Ash Wednesday is a sacramental in which the priest, minister, or cleric marks the forehead of the faithful with dark ashes in the sign of the cross. The ashes (usually from palms) are left on the worshiper as a sign of repentance and reminder of human mortality.
A Moveable Season
Lent is a moveable season, starting on the Wednesday on the seventh week before Easter. Easter falls on the first Sunday following the first ecclesiastical full moon that occurs on or after the day of the vernal equinox in the Northern hemisphere. This ecclesiastical full moon is the 14th day of a tabular lunation (new moon), and for this purpose, the vernal equinox is fixed as March 21. The times of the ecclesiastical full moons are not always identical to the times of astronomical full moons. Also, the astronomical vernal equinox (the start of the Spring season) in the Northern hemisphere can occur on March 21 or March 20. In the Southern hemisphere, this is the day of the astronomical autumnal equinox. The date of Easter Sunday falls between March 22 and April 25, inclusive.
A Period in Which to Examine One's Life
The Lent period of self-restraint is one in which to examine oneís life, forgo past hurts, bitterness and anger, and commit to what is right and important.
During Lent, Catholics traditionally participate in the Sacrament of Penance. The faithful examine their conscience and identify sins committed, then confess their sins before God and the priest. The priest prescribes prayers, charitable acts, apologies, or other actions meant to heal the effects of sins committed. The priest then grants forgiveness of sins by Jesus. On Easter Sunday, Catholics traditionally participate in the Sacrament of the Eucharist. During this rite, bread and wine are transformed (transubstantiated) into the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ and through Holy Communion and Godís sanctifying action the faithful receive grace.
The Holy Week begins with Palm Sunday, the Sunday before Easter, which celebrates Jesusí triumphant entry into Jerusalem. Maundy Thursday, the Thursday before Easter, reflects Jesusí last supper with the Apostles. Good Friday reflects Jesusí arrest and crucifixion on Friday, April 3, 33 A.D.
Holy Saturday is the final day of Holy Week. It is a day of reflection upon Christís death in anticipation of the Paschal vigil of Easter. Easter Sunday celebrates Jesus Christís resurrection. It is a day of renewal and joy.
After Jesus was crucified, his body was placed in Joseph of Arimatheaís own tomb. On the following Sunday an earthquake shook the place and soldiers guarding the sealed tomb fled. Several women (Mary Magdalene and others) went to the tomb at dawn to anoint the body of Jesus. He met them on their way and spoke to them, telling them not to be afraid and to go tell the disciples. Jesus later appeared to the disciples while they were gathered at a house in prayer. He visited two of the disciples on the road to Emmaus and also appeared to several of them at the Sea of Galilee. Before ascending to heaven, Jesus told his disciples to go forth and make new disciples of all nations.
Many Christian churches hold special services on Easter Sunday, celebrating the resurrection of Jesus. Easter Sunday occurs in early Spring, and its celebration embraces the rebirth of nature. It is common to give baskets of candy and organize Easter egg hunts. Eggs are hidden beforehand, supposedly by the Easter Rabbit. The eggs are colored hard-boiled eggs or made of some material, like plastic, that can be decorated and filled with sweets or other treats. Children and adults then search for the eggs and are rewarded with the treats. It is customary to use festive colors like red, white, gold, and purple in Easter dress and adornments.
Spring break, usually a weeklong break from educational activities, is observed by many schools after or near Easter Sunday.
Substitution of Fish for Meat
In the early years of Christianity in Europe, the Church instituted the practice of requiring the faithful to abstain from eating meat on Fridays in memory of Christís death. The Churchís directive did not mention the eating of fish on Fridays. The substitution of fish for meat evolved as a way to abide by the Churchís rule while maintaining a nourishing diet.
The five-day period immediately preceding Lent, Carnival, is a time of festivity in many places. Carnival starts the Friday before Ash Wednesday and ends on Mardi Gras, the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. Like Lent, Carnival is a moveable time of year. The date of Mardi Gras falls on a day between February 3 and March 9, inclusive. In cities like Rio de Janeiro and New Orleans, parades with ornate floats, merry music, and elaborately costumed celebrants form the focus of mirthful street parties. The festival serves as a last opportunity to eat rich foods and indulge in cheerful antics before the period of repentance and self-restraint that follows.