Lent refers to the 40-day period starting on Ash Wednesday, ending on Holy Saturday (the day before Easter Sunday) but excluding all Sundays in between. While Lent is often ignored entirely by the Protestant community and given only token observance by Roman Catholics, among the Orthodox and many Eastern sects it remains a strictly observed fast much like the Muslim Ramadan.

The teaching of the Holy Father may be simply paraphrased: the obligation to do penance is a serious one; the obligation to observe, as a whole or "substantially", the penitential days specified by the Church is also serious. No one should be scrupulous in this regard; failure to observe individual days of penance is not considered serious; rather it is the failure to observe a substantial number of penitential days which must be considered serious. People should seek to do more rather than less.
The historical basis for the Lenten fast is Jesus's 40-day fast before beginning his ministry. It is also a time of reflection and penitence before the feast of the Resurrection, after which fasting is in fact prohibited! However, the New Testament does not lay out any specific dates or rules for fasting, and the idea of fasting seems to be largely copied from Jewish or even Roman tradition. (This is the main reason why most Protestant churches reject the tradition of the fast.) Most Christian teaching on the fast takes pains to point out that fasting in itself is not a virtue, it is only a means for self-control and more frequent prayer.

The first main component of Lent is the Obligation of Abstinence, which applies to all older than 14. For Roman Catholics, this has been interpreted to mean abstinence from eating flesh meat in any form (including broth), but not including fish. Nearly all Roman Catholic churches observe the Obligation on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday; most extend it to all other Fridays during Lent as well, but only a few require abstinence throughout the entire 40-day period. There is even a concept of "partial abstinence", meaning eating meat only once per day.

Instead of fasting, some Roman Catholics choose to abstain from a different vice: popular choices are coffee, chocolate, alcohol and even tobacco (not a minor undertaking!).

For the Orthodox, the rules of abstinence are much more complex. Basically, there are four categories of food to abstain from:

  1. Meat and Meat Products (includes beef, pork, chicken, etc., as well as items which have beef gelatin, lard, etc)
  2. Dairy Products (includes butter, eggs, milk, cheese, etc., as well as items containing dairy whey, milk extracts, etc.)
  3. Fish (includes sardines, tuna, bass, trout, shark, pike, etc. but not shell fish such as lobster, shrimp, crab, oysters, scallops, clams, mussels, etc.)
  4. Olive Oil (according to some, this would extend to all oil) and Wine (which includes all alcoholic beverages such as whiskey, beer, etc.)
Left out are grains, vegetables, fruits and -- oddly enough -- shellfish.

Which of the restricted groups can be eaten depends on the day and the strictness of one's observance. The strictest form is the following:

  • Weekdays during Lent: Abstinence of categories 1 through 4
  • Saturdays and Sundays during Lent: Abstinence of categories 1 through 3
  • Feast of the Annunciation and Palm Sunday: Abstinence of categories 1 and 2
Even among the Orthodox, many limit their observance to not eating meat on Fridays (and sometimes Wednesdays).

Being a little hungry during the day becomes a constant reminder of God, of our dependence on Him, and of the fact that the Lord alone can give us "food that lasts for eternal life" (John 6:27).
The second component is the Law of Fasting, also known as the Law of Strict Abstinence. According to the Roman Catholic church, fasting must be observed on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, and it is "encouraged" for Holy Saturday, for all who are older than 18 but younger than 59 years. Fasting takes the form of eating only one full meal per day, although two additional small meals are permitted "if necessary". Eating food between meals is forbidden.

The Orthodox observe the Law of Fasting during all weekdays of Lent, but less strictly: the only admonition is to eat less than usual and avoid eating between meals. Of course, many faithful (especially monks) fast more strictly, some practicing xerophagia (consuming only bread and water) or eating nothing at all during the day. St. John Chrysostom extends the definition of fasting to strict abstention from all evil.

While Lent itself is often forgotten, there are many reminders of the festivities surrounding the fast in this secular world of ours. The day before Ash Wednesday and the start of the fast is Shrove Tuesday (aka Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday), originally a day to fatten up before the fast but now an occasion for much drunken revelry. In Finland, custom demands that on Shrove Tuesday (laskijaistiistai) everybody eat pea soup, eat sugary buns and go sledding. And Easter Sunday at the end of the fast is celebrated with pastel-colored Easter bunnies passing out candy and painted eggs, which I'm sure is exactly what the Desert Fathers had in mind...

References

http://www.webdesk.com/catholic/passages/lent/rules.html
http://www.goarch.org/access/orthodoxfaith/lent/fasting.html
http://members.tscnet.com/pages/psaraki/fasting.htm

And then things too painful to view or bleed out. Yet, her densely-layered eyeliner only enhanced her neon jade eyes - she didn't even have to say a word. I empathized.

I tripped backwards a little bit. I knew right then that there was going to be a fall. Right there, and just by happenstance. Or destiny. Or nothing at all.

I give up winter.

I give up raspberries, and coca cola, and using a tea cozy as a hat.

I give up the grade F green tea that I bought that tastes like straw, and wallet chains and sundried limes. I give up putting cherries in ice cream and will no longer ride a unicycle to work or even anywhere.

I give up building boats out of fiberglass and letting my ears hang low. I will stop storing ducks and navigating by wind-chime. I give up mixing ham and yogurt, and drinking from the top of flagpoles. I will not skip backwards, and will stop wearing bracelets as necklaces.

I will not not not stop triple negatives as if I understood that sentence. I will not dot my sevens nor pimp my ride. I give up houses of cards and blowing my nose into headphones, opening mail and buying used light-bulbs. I give up colored screwdrivers and most swimwear, and oil paints in my cereal.

I hope lent gives it back.

The above entry characterizes the Catholic traditions of Lent very well, but the sentence "While Lent is often ignored entirely by the Protestant community" is sadly erroneous. Lent is celebrated by many Christian denominations, though the way it's practiced can certainly differ.

If the season that precedes it, Epiphany, is the celebration of the coming of God Made Manifest, then Lent represents the next chapter in the life of Jesus. This was one marked by the story of exile and loneliness and temptation in the desert, as well as the well known Good Friday/Passion story. So whereas in many Protestant denominations there is no official or enforced rule about avoiding certain foods or what have you, there are certainly opportunities for Christians of every stripe to become a bit more somber, a bit more reserved, and certainly meditative. It's not the hope of Advent, the celebratory light in the darkness of Christmas, or the homecoming of Pentecost, but it's nevertheless an important part of the Christian calendar.

40 days is quite a long time. It's time enough so that anything that you miss you certainly will miss, but it's also time enough to break a habit. There's certainly great spiritual discipline in the Catholic tradition of giving up a vice, and a pragmatic result from giving up smoking or chocolate. But in addition to not trying to turn Christianity into a rules-based undertaking, what does it benefit you to give up something you shouldn't really be doing anyway? If you don't drink to excess, that one sherry a week isn't exactly much in the grand scheme of things here or there, and if you smoke there's certainly more reasons than a spiritual one to give the practice up.

A recent addition to the Lenten practice is instead of giving something up that you shouldn't on a temporary basis - use the opportunity to think about how you use things you do, or using the opportunity to make more meaningful and long term changes. Some parishes suggest a "carbon diet" in terms of thinking about one's environmental impact, for example. 

In fact, in the same vein some parishes have adopted taking on something as a Lenten practice instead. Some will learn to pray a Rosary and pray that for 40 days, or undertake praying one of the Offices every day. Perhaps that 40 days would be devoted to a new jogging regimen or trying a vegan diet. In some instances, it's not necessarily that you're doing something you could do without, but that you're not doing enough. And many people carry on their Bible study, or their daily meditation, or whatever they took on as a project. 40 days is long enough, also, to establish a habit.

Instead of considering Lent a time in which you dress in sackcloth and ashes: (witness the large parties that precede Lent in Catholic nations, such as Mardi Gras, or Carnival - a last gasp to hold on to wine women and song before a long dreary meatless and beer-less existence)... in the same way in which Christmas maps to the time of the year when the earth is in darkness and you yearn for light, let Lent be the time in your life where, in addition to doing a "spring cleaning" just at the beginning of spring, that you take stock of your own life and make some adjustments and changes to improve your relations with your neighbour, your impact on the world around you, and your own life in general.

Lent (?),

imp. & p. p. of Lend.

 

© Webster 1913.


Lent, n. [OE. lente, lenten, leynte, AS. lengten, lencten, spring, lent, akin to D. lente, OHG. lenzin, langiz, G. lenz, and perh. fr. AS. lang long, E. long, because at this season of the year the days lengthen.] Eccl.

A fast of forty days, beginning with Ash Wednesday and continuing till Easter, observed by some Christian churches as commemorative of the fast of our Savior.

 

© Webster 1913.


Lent, a. [L. lentus; akin to lenis soft, mild: cf. F. lent. See Lenient.]

1.

Slow; mild; gentle; as, lenter heats.

[Obs.]

B.Jonson.

2. Mus.

See Lento.

 

© Webster 1913.

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