What is Lent?

Bowl of ashes with a cross in them surrounded by palms for Lent

Lent can seem a little mystifying if it’s something you didn’t grow up with. Why do friends talk about “giving something up for Lent”? Why are colleagues showing up to work with ashy smudges on their foreheads on what seems to be a random Wednesday? And just how is a big blowout party like Mardi Gras connected to this deeply meaningful religious observance?

If you’ve ever wondered about any of these things, then keep reading for a little background on what Lent is, why it’s important to Christians and how different people observe it.

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When Is Lent?  

Lent is the roughly six-week period (46 days) leading up to Easter each year. The date of Easter varies from year to year, and the period of Lent varies along with it. Lent always begins on a Wednesday—“Ash Wednesday”—in February or March. Depending on the particular Christian tradition, it lasts until the Thursday or Saturday just before Easter in late March or April.

The word “Lent” comes from the Old English word for spring, and that seasonal meaning endures in the way Christians use it today. Lent is, indeed, a special season, set apart from the “Ordinary Time” that fills up much of the Christian liturgical calendar. Another special, set-apart season is Advent, or the four weeks leading up to Christmas.

The daily devotional podcast Pray as You Go offers a great way to get a feel for the rhythms of the Christian liturgical calendar. Each episode begins with the reader noting the day’s date and which liturgical season it falls under.

A season of preparation  

Even more so than Advent, the season of Lent tends to have a contemplative, solemn quality because it’s a time for Christian believers to focus on the sacrifice that Jesus made when he laid down his life to redeem humankind.

Fasting is a common practice during Lent, and it’s a way of reflecting that sacrificial, Christlike spirit. In earlier times, believers would forego all food on certain days during Lent and many still do.

Increasingly, people are choosing to give up meat, alcohol, social media or some other luxury for the duration of Lent. In doing so, they’re seeking to draw closer to God. They’re eliminating distractions and preparing their hearts to fully experience the gift of Jesus’ life for theirs, along with the miracle of his resurrection.

“To me, Lent is a deliberate limiting of self for the purpose of paying attention to God. It’s surprising that something as all-encompassing as God could ever not be focused on, but it happens. Lent helps me see just how much.” —Dan T.

Is Lent for Catholics only?  

No, protestant Christians of many denominations also choose to observe Lent. It may or may not be emphasized at the church they belong to, but they can still bring Lenten practices into their personal spiritual life and that of their family. In general, Lent receives greater emphasis in Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox and other traditions that embrace a more formal liturgy, but it can be a meaningful time for any Christian.

“My family belonged to a small Episcopal church in a central Kansas town of about 5,000 people. My mother volunteered much of her time to the church. She observed the Lenten season not so much as a time of abstention (although she skipped meat on Fridays) but as an opportunity to devote even more effort to the church community’s physical needs: groundskeeping tasks, refinishing furniture, preparing meals. She gave as much of her time in Lent back to God as she was able.” —Kevin D.

Ash Wednesday  

Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent each year. Some believers will fast on Ash Wednesday, even if they don’t plan to practice any other kind of fast or sacrifice during Lent. Catholic, Anglican and many other churches will offer an Ash Wednesday service, incorporating the distribution of ashes. At the service, a participant may choose to have their priest or pastor make the sign of the cross, in ashes, on their forehead, and it can be a very moving and powerful experience:

“On Ash Wednesday, sitting in the choir loft and watching everyone kneel for the imposition of ashes—those that I know are older or are in poor health, babies, newlyweds, new parents—I usually end up just mouthing the words to whatever we’re supposed to be singing and trying not to cry.” —Mark M.

The ashes symbolize repentance from sin and serve as a reminder of believers’ own mortality and need for redemption through faith. Some churches obtain their ashes by burning the palm branches used during the previous year’s Palm Sunday service (the Sunday before Easter). The branches are used to commemorate Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, where crowds greeted him by waving palm branches and laying them at his feet.

Shrove Tuesday, Mardi Gras and Carnival  

Shrove Tuesday and Mardi Gras are two different names for the Tuesday right before Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent. “Shrove” or “shriven” literally means to be absolved from sin. In the UK, Shrove Tuesday is commonly referred to as Pancake Day and is known for big crepe or pancake feasts meant to remove temptation by using up all the indulgent foods that Christians won’t be eating during Lent.

“Even a lot of nonreligious people in the UK will have pancakes on this day. My family has pancakes (if I remember and have the right ingredients in!) but we don’t really think of it as a religious thing, even though we are regular worshippers. I like traditional lemon juice and sugar on mine, but the kids often have Nutella or syrup on theirs, or even strawberries and whipped cream if we have them in. So they are certainly taking the ‘using up rich foods’ message on board!” —Caroline C.

Mardi Gras, which is French for “Fat Tuesday,” offers an even better clue about the spirit of this last hurrah before the sacrificial season of Lent. New Orleans, LA, is the city best known for its Mardi Gras parades and balls, and it attracts more than a million visitors to the city each year. However, NOLA is far from the only place to celebrate Mardi Gras. It’s also popular in Alabama and Florida, and even cities as far away as Los Angeles are known for their Fat Tuesday festivities. In any location, the idea is for people to seize their last chance to enjoy all the indulgences they plan to give up for the next several weeks before Easter.

Mardi Gras also has special significance for Black Americans. During segregation, when Black people were excluded from the biggest Mardi Gras parades in New Orleans, they organized rival parades originating in their own neighborhoods, and rich musical and costume traditions grew up around them. Notable African-American parade groups include Zulu and various “tribes” of Mardi Gras Indians, the latter honoring historical ties of friendship between Black and indigenous Americans.

Carnival is another variation on pre-Lent celebrating, and it’s an even bigger party: It starts on the Friday before Lent. Brazil’s are the best-known Carnival celebrations, with their music, dancing and elaborate costumes, but Carnival is also celebrated in cities worldwide, especially those with significant populations of people with Caribbean or South American roots.

Differing approaches to Lent  

Lent looks different for different people. The Bible doesn’t lay out a specific set of instructions on how to observe Lent, so Christians are free to find their own ways of drawing closer to God during this season. Some believers are moving away from formal services and fasting toward a more personal observance of Lent:

“These days, instead of giving something up as we did traditionally, I try to help the kids focus on simple, daily ways we can share love and kindness with others. One thing I’ve been trying to help them understand, especially with all we’re going through globally right now, is how significant those darker, more somber times are, because they can lead to something beautiful if we are able to be patient, allow for transformation and look for silver linings.” —Paige D.

At the same time, others are gravitating back toward more formal ways of setting aside this season as sacred and special:

“When my family moved from a casual, modern-worship church to an Anglican one, I was interested in going to the church’s Ash Wednesday service. I didn’t know what to expect. Before, I was afraid I’d feel out of place participating in a service that I had very little experience with. On the contrary, I felt miraculously unified with the rest of the congregation and so touched by the humbling Lenten message of ‘from dust you came and to dust you will return’ that during our time of singing I was moved to tears.” —Olivia C.

Lent is a quiet season of faith that has had a broad cultural influence around the world. Although it’s a specifically Christian observance, anyone who wishes to can find something beneficial to borrow from Lent, whether it’s setting aside technological distractions for a time to focus on in-person relationships or designating a season each year to volunteer more of your time and talents to a worthy cause.