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Lent (Latin: Quadragesima, "fortieth") is an observance in the liturgical year of many Christian denominations, lasting for a period of approximately six weeks leading up to Easter. In most Western denominations Lent is taken to run from Ash Wednesday to Maundy Thursday (Holy Thursday) or to Easter Eve.
The traditional purpose of Lent is the preparation of the believer—through prayer, penance, repentance, almsgiving, and self-denial. Its institutional purpose is heightened in the annual commemoration of Holy Week, marking the death and resurrection of Jesus, which recalls the events of the Passion of Christ on Good Friday, which then culminates in the celebration on Easter Sunday of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
During Lent, many of the faithful commit to fasting or giving up certain types of luxuries as a form of penitence. The Stations of the Cross, a devotional commemoration of Christ's carrying the Cross and of his execution, are often observed. Many Roman Catholic and some Protestant churches bare their altars of candles, flowers, and other devotional offerings, while Crucifixes, religious statues, and other elaborate religious paraphernalia are often veiled in violet fabrics in observance of this event. In certain pious Catholic countries, grand processions and cultural customs are observed, and the faithful attempt to visit seven churches during Holy Week in honor of Jesus Christ heading to Mount Calvary.
Lent is traditionally described as lasting for forty days, in commemoration of the forty days which, according to the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus spent fasting in the desert before the beginning of his public ministry, where he endured temptation by Satan. However, different Christian denominations calculate the "forty days" of Lent differently. In most Western tradition the Sundays are not counted as part of Lent; thus the period from Ash Wednesday until Easter consists of 40 days when the Sundays are excluded. However in the Roman Catholic Church Lent is now taken to end on Holy Thursday rather than Easter Eve, and hence lasts 38 days excluding Sundays, or 44 days in total.
Most followers of Western Christianity observe Lent beginning on Ash Wednesday, and concluding on Maundy Thursday (Holy Thursday) or on Easter Eve. The six Sundays in this period are often not regarded as being part of the observance (being termed Sundays in, rather than of, Lent), because each one represents a "mini-Easter," a celebration of Jesus' victory over sin and death.
Since the Second Vatican Council, the Roman Catholic Church has redefined Good Friday into Holy Saturday as the first two days of the Easter Triduum rather than the last two days of Lent, but Lenten observances are maintained until the Easter Vigil.
In those churches which follow the Rite of Constantinople (e.g. Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholics), the forty days of Lent are counted differently; also, the date of Pascha (Easter) is calculated differently in the East than in the West (see Computus). The fast begins on Clean Monday, and Sundays are included in the count; thus, counting uninterruptedly from Clean Monday, Great Lent ends on the fortieth consecutive day, which is the Friday before Palm Sunday. The days of Lazarus Saturday, Palm Sunday and Holy Week are considered a distinct period of fasting. For more detailed information about the Eastern Christian practice of Lent, see the article Great Lent.
Among Oriental Orthodox Catholics, there are various local traditions regarding Lent. The Coptic, Ethiopian and Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Churches observe eight weeks of Lent, which, with both Saturdays and Sundays exempt, has forty days of fasting. The first seven days of the fast are considered by some to be an optional time of preparation. Others attribute these seven days to the fast of Holofernes who asked the Syrian Christians to fast for him after they requested his assistance to repel the invading pagan Persians. Joyous Saturday and the week preceding it are counted separately from the forty day fast in accordance with the Apostolic Constitutions giving an extra eight days.
The number forty has many Biblical references: the forty days Moses spent on Mount Sinai with God (Exodus 24:18); the forty days and nights Elijah spent walking to Mount Horeb (1 Kings 19:8); the forty days and nights God sent rain in the great flood of Noah (Genesis 7:4); the forty years the Hebrew people wandered in the desert while traveling to the Promised Land (Numbers 14:33); the forty days Jonah gave in his prophecy of judgment to the city of Nineveh in which to repent or be destroyed (Jonah 3:4).
Jesus retreated into the wilderness, where He fasted for forty days, and was tempted by the devil (Matthew 4:1–2, Mark 1:12–13, Luke 4:1–2). He overcame all three of Satan's temptations by citing scripture to the devil, at which point the devil left Him, angels ministered to Jesus, and He began His ministry. Jesus further said that His disciples should fast "when the bridegroom shall be taken from them" (Matthew 9:15), a reference to his Passion. Since, presumably, the Apostles fasted as they mourned the death of Jesus, Christians have traditionally fasted during the annual commemoration of his burial.
It is the traditional belief that Jesus lay for forty hours in the tomb which led to the forty hours of total fast that preceded the Easter celebration in the early Church (the biblical reference to 'three days in the tomb' is understood as spanning three days, from Friday afternoon to early Sunday morning, rather than three 24 hour periods of time). One of the most important ceremonies at Easter was the baptism of the initiates on Easter Eve. The fast was initially undertaken by the catechumens to prepare them for the reception of this sacrament. Later, the period of fasting from Good Friday until Easter Day was extended to six days, to correspond with the six weeks of training, necessary to give the final instruction to those converts who were to be baptized.
Converts to Catholicism followed a strict catechumenate or period of instruction and discipline prior to baptism. In Jerusalem near the close of the fourth century, classes were held throughout Lent for three hours each day. With the legalization of Christianity (by the Edict of Milan) and its later imposition as the state religion of the Roman Empire, its character was endangered by the great influx of new members. In response, the Lenten fast and practices of self-renunciation were required annually of all Christians, both to show solidarity with the catechumens, and for their own spiritual benefit.
In Latin the term quadragesima (translation of the original Greek Τεσσαρακοστή, Tessarakostē, the "fortieth" day before Easter) is used. This nomenclature is preserved in Romance, Slavic and Celtic languages (for example, Spanish cuaresma, Portuguese quaresma, French carême, Italian quaresima, Romanian păresimi, Croatian korizma, Irish Carghas, and Welsh C(a)rawys). However in most Slavic languages the common name is simply a phrase meaning "fasting time" (as Czech postní doba) or "great fast" (as Russian великий пост vyeliki post).
In the late Middle Ages, as sermons began to be given in the vernacular instead of Latin, the English word lent was adopted. This word initially simply meant spring (as in the German language Lenz and Dutch lente) and derives from the Germanic root for long because in the spring the days visibly lengthen.
There are traditionally forty days in Lent which are marked by fasting, both from foods and festivities, and by other acts of penance. The three traditional practices to be taken up with renewed vigour during Lent are prayer (justice towards God), fasting (justice towards self), and almsgiving (justice towards neighbour). Today, some people give up a vice of theirs, add something that will bring them closer to God, and often give the time or money spent doing that to charitable purposes or organizations.
In many liturgical Christian denominations, Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday form the Easter Triduum. Lent is a season of grief that necessarily ends with a great celebration of Easter. It is known in Eastern Orthodox circles as the season of "Bright Sadness." It is a season of sorrowful reflection which is punctuated by breaks in the fast on Sundays.
In the Roman Catholic Mass, Lutheran Divine Service, and Anglican Eucharist, the Gloria in Excelsis Deo is not sung during the Lenten season, disappearing on Ash Wednesday and not returning until the moment of the Resurrection during the Easter Vigil. On major feast days, the Gloria in Excelsis Deo is recited, but this in no way diminishes the penitential character of the season; it simply reflects the joyful character of the Mass of the day in question. It is also used in the Mass of the Lord's Supper. Likewise, the Alleluia is not sung during Lent; it is replaced before the Gospel reading by a seasonal acclamation. In the pre-1970 form of the Roman Rite omission of the Alleluia begins with Septuagesima. In the Byzantine Rite, the Gloria (Great Doxology) continues to be used in its normal place in the Matins service, and the Alleluia appears all the more frequently, replacing "God is the Lord" at Matins.
In pre-1970 forms of the Roman Rite, the last two weeks of Lent are known as Passiontide, a period beginning on the Fifth Sunday in Lent, which in the 1962 edition of the Roman Missal is called the First Sunday in Passiontide and in earlier editions Passion Sunday. All statues (and in England paintings as well) in the church were traditionally veiled in violet. This was seen as in keeping with the Gospel of that Sunday (John 8:46–59), in which Jesus “hid himself” from the people. The veils were removed at the singing of the Gloria during the Easter Vigil. In 1970 the name "Passiontide" was dropped, although the last two weeks are markedly different from the rest of the season, and continuance of the tradition of veiling images is left to the decision of a country's conference of bishops.
The traditional carnival celebrations which precede Lent in many cultures have become associated with the season of fasting if only because they are a last opportunity for excess before Lent begins. The most famous pre-Lenten carnival in the world is celebrated in Rio de Janeiro; other famous Carnivals are held in Trinidad & Tobago, Venice, Cologne, Mobile, AL and New Orleans. It is known by the name Mardi Gras, Shrove Tuesday, or Fat Tuesday.
Fasting during Lent was more severe in ancient times than today. Socrates Scholasticus reports that in some places, all animal products were strictly forbidden, while others will permit fish, others permit fish and fowl, others prohibit fruit and eggs, and still others eat only bread. In some places, believers abstained from food for an entire day; others took only one meal each day, while others abstained from all food until 3 o'clock. In most places, however, the practice was to abstain from eating until the evening, when a small meal without vegetables or alcohol was eaten.
During the early Middle Ages, meat, eggs and dairy products were generally forbidden. Thomas Aquinas argued that "they afford greater pleasure as food [than fish], and greater nourishment to the human body, so that from their consumption there results a greater surplus available for seminal matter, which when abundant becomes a great incentive to lust."
However, dispensations for dairy products were given, frequently for a donation, from which several churches are popularly believed to have been built, including the "Butter Tower" of the Rouen Cathedral. In Spain, the bull of the Holy Crusade (renewed periodically after 1492) allowed the consumption of dairy products and eggs during Lent in exchange for a contribution to the conflict.
Giraldus Cambrensis in his Itinerary of Archbishop Baldwin through Wales reports that "in Germany and the arctic regions," "great and religious persons," eat the tail of beavers as "fish" because of its superficial resemblance to a fish, "both the taste and colour of fish." The animal was also very abundant in Wales at the time.
In current Western societies the practice is considerably relaxed, though in the Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Churches abstinence from all animal products including fish, eggs, fowl and milk sourced from animals (e.g. goats and cows as opposed to the milk of soy beans and coconuts) is still commonly practiced, meaning only vegetarian (vegan) meals are consumed in many Eastern countries[which?] for the entire fifty-five days of their Lent. In the Roman Catholic Church it is traditional to abstain from meat from mammals and fowl on Ash Wednesday and every Friday for the duration of Lent, although fish and dairy products are still permitted. On Ash Wednesday and Good Friday it is customary to fast for the day, with no meat, eating only one full meal, and if necessary, two small meals also.
Pursuant to Canon 1253, days of fasting and abstinence are set by the national Episcopal Conference. On days of fasting, one eats only one full meal, but may eat two smaller meals as necessary to keep up one's strength. The two small meals together must sum to less than the one full meal. Parallel to the fasting laws are the laws of abstinence. These bind those over the age of fourteen. On days of abstinence, the person must not eat meat or poultry. According to canon law, all Fridays of the year, Ash Wednesday and several other days are days of abstinence, though in most countries, the strict requirements for abstinence have been limited by the bishops (in accordance with Canon 1253) to the Fridays of Lent and Ash Wednesday. On other abstinence days, the faithful are invited to perform some other act of penance. A custom that developed later was to also give up something a person “enjoyed” receiving or doing for the duration of Lent. Although it is not required or part of any rule, many Christians today will also choose to give up something during the Lenten period.
Exceptions to abstinence on Fridays during the Lenten Season can occur through the dispensation of a particular bishop. For example, in the United States in areas where the diocesan patron is St. Patrick (as in the Archdiocese of New York) or where many Catholics share an Irish heritage (as in Boston), if St. Patrick's Day (March 17) falls on a Friday, the local bishop can grant a dispensation to all Catholics of the diocese from abstinence. (Approximately one third of all Catholic dioceses in the United States grant such a dispensation.) More universally, this occurs on the solemnities of St. Joseph and the Annunciation, which are always 19 and 25 March respectively. If the solemnities (19 March or 25 March), although not Holy Days of Obligation, fall on a Friday during Lent then the obligation to abstain is abrogated. Similarly, during those two solemnities, the faithful may temporarily partake of anything they gave up for Lent, unless they were trying to give up a habitual sin as their Lenten offering- which is not uncommon.
Contemporary legislation is rooted in the 1966 Apostolic Constitution of Pope Paul VI, Paenitemini. He recommended that fasting be appropriate to the local economic situation, and that all Catholics voluntarily fast and abstain. He also allowed that fasting and abstinence might be substituted with prayer and works of charity in nations with a lower standard of living.
Traditionally, on Easter Sunday, Roman Catholics may cease their fasting and start again whatever they gave up for Lent, after they attend Mass on Easter Sunday. Orthodox Christians break their fast after the Paschal Vigil (a service which starts around 11:00 pm on Holy Saturday), which includes the Paschal celebration of the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. At the end of the service, the priest will bless eggs, cheese, flesh meats and other items that the faithful have been abstaining from for the duration of Great Lent.
Lenten practices (as well as various other liturgical practices) are more common in Protestant circles than they once were. Many modern Protestants consider the observation of Lent to be a choice, rather than an obligation. They may decide to give up a favorite food or drink (e.g. chocolate, alcohol) or activity (e.g., going to the movies, playing video games, etc.) for Lent, or they may instead take on a Lenten discipline such as devotions, volunteering for charity work, and so on. In the Reformed tradition Lent is rejected. Ulrich Zwingli, considered the initial leader of the Reformed movement in Switzerland, made the Lenten fast representative of the difference between the traditional sacramentalism of the Catholic Church and the belief in "sola fide" that he was beginning to espouse. On the first fasting Sunday, 9 March, Zwingli and about a dozen other supporters purposely and publicly violated the Lenten fast by cutting and distributing two smoked sausages. Since then, the Reformed movement, including the Puritans in the English speaking world, have not observed Lent, sometimes making a demonstration of their rejection of it.
During Lent, BBC's Radio Four normally broadcasts a series of fifteen minute programs called the Lent Talks. These are fifteen minute programmes that are normally broadcast on a Wednesday, and have featured various speakers.
There are several holy days within the season of Lent:
In the Anglican, Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Old Catholic, and many other churches, the Easter Triduum is a three-day event that begins with the entrance hymn of the Mass of the Lord's Supper. After this Holy Thursday evening celebration, the consecrated Hosts are taken from the altar solemnly to a place of reposition where the faithful are invited to worship the holy Body of Christ. On the next day the liturgical commemoration of the Passion of Jesus Christ is celebrated at 3 pm, unless a later time is chosen due to work schedules. This service consists of readings from the Scriptures especially John the Evangelist's account of the Passion of Jesus, followed by prayers, adoration of the cross of Jesus, and a communion service at which the hosts consecrated at the evening Mass of the day before are distributed. The Easter Vigil during the night between Holy Saturday afternoon and Easter Sunday morning starts with the blessing of a fire and a special candle and with readings from Scripture associated with baptism, then the Gloria in Excelsis Deo is sung, water is blessed, baptism and confirmation of adults may take place, and the people are invited to renew the promises of their own baptism, and finally Mass is celebrated in the usual way from the Preparation of the Gifts onwards.
Holy Week and the season of Lent, depending on denomination and local custom, end with Easter Vigil at sundown on Holy Saturday or on the morning of Easter Sunday. It is custom for some churches to hold sunrise services which include open air celebrations in some places.
In the Roman Catholic, Lutheran, and many Anglican churches, the priest's vestments are violet during the season of Lent. On the fourth Sunday in Lent, rose-coloured (pink) vestments may be worn in lieu of violet. In some Anglican churches, a type of unbleached linen or muslin known as Lenten array is used during the first three weeks of Lent, and crimson during Passiontide. On holy days, the colour proper to the day is worn.
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