Lent: how and why

Why is the 40-day period leading to the commemoration of Jesus’s Passion, Death and Resurrection called ‘Lent’? ‘Lent’ was originally a secular word (from lencten, the Old English word for ‘lengthen’) referring to the lengthening of days in the season of spring. Over the centuries ‘Lent’ became synonymous with the liturgical period as this always fell during the springtime in Europe. Besides, it was an easier word than the official Latin Quadragesima, literally, 40th day before Easter.

That today the period from Ash Wednesday to Holy Thursday (afternoon) actually comprises 44 days is another thing. This mismatch is a result of the post-Vatican II reorganization of the liturgical year and calendar: considering that the rite of ashes had become very popular, even more than many other days of greater solemnity, it was decided to have Lent prefixed by the days from Ash Wednesday to Saturday. Minus those days, the number is 40.

Historically, Quadragesima is the bare minimum period of Lent. In earlier times there was a remote preparation comprising three weeks: the Septuagesima, the Sexagesima, and the Quinquagesima that acted as a bridge between joyful Christmas and sobering Lent. The ashes have now become a reminder that the first Sunday of Lent – the Quadragesima – is round the corner, to begin the commemoration of the 40 days Jesus spent fasting in the wilderness.

That is how fasting has become inseparable from the penitential period. Earlier, fasting was throughout Lent except Sundays, in keeping with the primacy of this day as a joyful feast honouring the Resurrection of Christ. With the reorganization of Lent in 1969 it ceased to be a season of fasting. Presently, only two days – Ash Wednesday and Good Friday – are prescribed as days of fasting. For their part, Lenten Sundays play the role of shaping the week’s liturgical focus and provide the base of all the liturgy building up to Holy Week.

How long or short a period of Lent we have is finally a matter of individual choice; we know best why we abstain or refrain from certain foods; and how beneficial the season is going to be is finally left to me and my God to work out. However, if we are attuned to the liturgical seasons, we will already feel a pull towards Lent much before it actually begins; if fasting is not a matter of mere protocol we will happily go the extra mile. With the freedom we have received, we are, so to say, masters of our destiny.

Knowing the meaning and necessity of the Lenten season can help us guide our own destiny. St John Paul II summarized it well when he said: “Here then is revealed which, by its call to conversion, leads us through prayer, penance and acts of fraternal solidarity to renew or reinvigorate our friendship with Jesus in faith, to free ourselves from the deceptive promises of earthly happiness and once again to savour the harmony of the interior life in authentic love for Christ.”

That’s how and why Lent is considered a spiritual spring: we are renewed in fervour and become a vessel unto honour.