Holidays Andregular Observances

What is the meaning of the season of Lent or the Great Fast?

For at least three centuries, early Christians observed a two- or three-day fast in preparation for Easter. Canons of the Council of Nicea in 325 represent the first reference to the later observance of a forty-day fast recalling symbolically similar practices by Moses and Jesus. Lent now begins for Western Christians on Ash Wednesday, while Eastern Christians typically begin the “Great Fast” two days earlier. Until the seventh century, the season began on a Sunday, but since Sunday was exempted from fasting, the beginning was advanced so as to include a full forty days’ fast. Ashes applied to the head are a reminder of human sinfulness and mortality and recall an earlier practice in which penitents appeared in public wearing sackcloth and ashes. For centuries Christians fasted for a significant portion of each Lenten day, Monday through Saturday, and generally abstained entirely from meat. Contemporary practice has generally limited a modified form of fasting and abstinence to the first day of Lent and Good Friday. For example, Catholic practice recommends taking smaller meals at breakfast and lunch, together equaling less than one takes at the main meal, with no food in between. That is a far cry from serious fasting, but still at least a reminder of the purpose of the season—namely, a heightened awareness of the need for spiritual conversion and dependence on God.


This is a web preview of the "The Handy Religion Answer Book" app. Many features only work on your mobile device. If you like what you see, we hope you will consider buying. Get the App