Lent, primarily practiced by Catholics, but also some other Christian denominations, originated as a public way for those who had fallen into serious sin to be readmitted to the Church.
The meaning of Lent is based in baptism. Preparation for Baptism and for renewing baptismal commitment is the purpose of the season. Since the Second Vatican Council, the Church has reemphasized the baptismal character of Lent, especially through the restoration of Lenten rituals.
The Teutonic word Lent, which is used to denote the forty days’ fast preceding Easter, originally meant no more than the spring season. Still, says the Catholic Encyclopedia, it has been used from the Anglo-Saxon period to translate the more significant Latin term quadragesima, meaning the “forty days”, or more literally the “fortieth day”. This in turn imitated the Greek name for Lent, tessarakoste, a word formed on the analogy of Pentecost, which last was in use for the Jewish festival before New Testament times.
Lent as a 40-day season developed in the fourth century from three merging sources. The first was the ancient paschal fast that began as a two-day observance before Easter but was gradually lengthened to 40 days. The second was the process of preparation for Baptism, including an intense period of preparation for the Sacraments of Initiation to be celebrated at Easter. The third was the Order of Penitents, which was forgiveness for those who had fallen back into sin after Baptism.
In the Catholic Church, the year is divided into liturgical seasons based on significant events in the life and earthly ministry of Jesus Christ as well as the great Mysteries of the faith. The Church Year, as it is called, begins with Advent, which is celebrated as four weeks of preparation before Christmas.
Catholics live liturgically by actually entering into the Church year. Such an approach to life and worship is not simply about re-enacting the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Rather, it is an invitation to enter into a deeper meaning of faith, to experience Salvation as an ongoing process.
Easter, the celebration of the resurrection of Christ, is preceded by Lent in preparation for the Easter Day observance. So Lent is a 40-day period prior to Easter Day. Holy Week begins the Sunday before Easter with Palm Sunday (also called Passion Sunday), Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday.
READ NEXT: Read more about Ash Wednesday.