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What Is Roman Catholic Lent?

Updated on February 28, 2013
A traditional Roman Catholic confessional Lent is a time of Penance as well as reflection.
A traditional Roman Catholic confessional Lent is a time of Penance as well as reflection. | Source

When Does Lent Begin and End?

Lent is a moveable holiday, though it begins on Ash Wednesday every year. However, the date of Ash Wednesday is calculated to be forty-six (46) days from the date of Easter, and so may occur as early as February 4th and as late as March 10th in any given year. Lent does not end at Easter, however. Since Vatican II, Lent officially ends for Roman Catholics on Holy Thursday (also called Maundy Thursday). Good Friday and Holy Saturday are the first two days of the Triduum (the Three Days), ending with Easter Sunday.

Other Christian Denominations That Observe Lent

  • Anglicans
  • Lutherans
  • Methodists
  • Presbyterians

Duration of Lent

Most people think of Lent as a period of forty (40) days and nights, but it depends on how you calculate it. Some traditions, including Roman Catholics, do not count the Sundays in Lent and so Lent is actually a period of thirty-eight days, not forty. Taking the Sundays in Lent into account, this period is a total of about forty-four days.

Lent Is the Pursuit of Happiness

Traditionally, Lent is a period of justice, of doing just deeds, behaving fairly. The three main practices of Lent are prayer (representing justice – or fairness - towards God), fasting (representing justice – or fairness – to oneself), and giving alms (representing justice – or fairness – to others). The forty day period of Lent is a symbolic re-enactment of the time Jesus spent in the desert, before beginning his life of public ministry. During this forty day retreat, Jesus was tempted three times by the Devil. For individual Catholics, and Christians of the Western tradition, Lent is a time to take a hard look at our individual needs and wants. Are our needs being met? Do we have more than what we truly need to survive? Are we pursuing our desires but neglecting the people around us (our families, our communities)? This is akin to the Devil’s temptations of Jesus. He was asked to use His power, His divinity, for selfish ends; He declined. Lent is, for us (mere mortals), a time to review our goals and not only how we pursue them, but why we pursue them. If you think about it honestly, this isn’t just a Roman Catholic, or Christian, tradition.

Lenten Practices

  1. Fasting, especially on Ash Wednesday and every Friday through Lent.
  2. Abstaining from meat and fowl/poultry on Ash Wednesday and every Friday through Lent.
  3. Meditation, by doing the Stations of the Cross, praying the Rosary, or other personal meditation on the Sunday Gospels for the roughly six weeks of Lent.

Lent: A Universal Practice, No Matter What You Call It (or Yourself)

No matter how you label yourself – religious, secular, political activist, atheist, moral or amoral person – and, if religious, no matter what religion you practice, you most likely have a “Lent” of your own. After all, what is a vacation, if not a break from your daily routine (or “daily grind”) so that you can recharge your batteries, rest, reflect (if you so choose), putter around the house, etc.? Isn’t that really the same thing as Jesus’ going out into the desert to renew himself before beginning His public life? How about New Year’s? Do you reassess your life towards the end of the year and make new resolutions? Again, if you think about it, it’s really the same thing as Lent for Roman Catholics or Western rite Christians: a time of reflection and renewal. Have you ever gone to a yoga retreat or even simply on a “detox” diet? Again, Roman Catholic Lenten practices amount to the same thing: abstinence from meat is about spiritually and behaviourally cleansing and “detoxing” as much as about “giving something up, Roman Catholics just tot it up to a “love of God.” What is the Muslim Hajj if not a period of reflection and a set of cleansing (spiritually and physically) practices? No matter how you choose to describe your practice, it is essentially a universal, human one.

Lent Is Not About Giving Something Up

Anyone who went to Catholic school in the 70s and 80s remembers Lent as a time of giving something up. In 5th grade, some of us tried to stop negative behaviors; I tried to give up nail biting. In 6th grade, I distinctly remember my whole class giving up candy in some form or another because behaviors had proved really hard to modify the previous Lent; I couldn’t really stop biting my nails until I was in my twenties. But Lent is not really about giving a concrete “something” up, or about abstinence in general. The heart of Lent is about submission to the will of God. It is about admitting that we humans can’t do everything all by ourselves. It is, ultimately, about community and helping ourselves grow by helping others. The philosopher Soren Kierkegaard called this process expanding our ego boundaries, letting ourselves think about greater issues than just those that immediately affect us. Lent is really a catharsis, a way of releasing negative feelings in order to live a happier life. Roman Catholics and other Western tradition Christians do this through fasting, abstinence and meditation, especially during the forty (40) to forty-six (46) days and nights of Lent.

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