Christian Traditions 010: Lent Season

Von Trapp Follow-Along: Maria writes quite a bit about this period, under “LENT” in her book.


The Lent cycle is by far and without question the most important cycle in Christianity. Although Jesus certainly couldn’t have died had He not been born, there is no doubt that His redemptive work (Lent and Easter) is more important theologically than His birth (Advent and Christmas). Jesus’ death and resurrection is the basis of the Christian faith. Without it, our religion is false. This is perhaps why these two events have been questioned and twisted and argued more than any other historical event in our church. I could go on, but it’s been done before and I have limited space here. 😉 Lent includes the forty days leading up to Easter Sunday and so it is a time of preparation for Easter. The triumph of Christ’s resurrection on Easter must necessarily be preceded by the solemnity of His death, and that is the focus of Lent. Lent also encompasses His preparation for the ministry and self-denial, and so we spend Lent also focusing on preparation and self-denial. Because His work in providing us with redemption from sins is ultimately the end of Lent, Christians also spend this season focusing on repentance and penance.

violet purpleCOLOR

Purple or Violet. This color is associated with penance and detachment. Exceptions are rose on Laetare Sunday and crimson on Passion Sunday (or in the Anglican Church, throughout Passiontide).


There are many symbols of Lent, but none seem to be the official symbol of Lent. For example, because Good Friday commemorates Jesus’ death, the cross; because Palm Sunday commemorates Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem prior to His death, palm leaves; etc. See some examples here.


The three days including Easter Sunday—Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday—are called the Easter Triduum. These days are unique as compared to the remainder of either Lent or Easter seasons because Friday commemorates His death and Saturday His day in the tomb, whereas Easter Sunday begins the season-long celebration of His resurrection, and all Lent days leading up to the Easter Triduum commemorate the preparation for His sacrifice, so there is good reason to set them aside as being in their own mini-season. However, the fasting of Lent lasts through Good Friday and Holy Saturday, so there’s also good reason to include them in Lent. Therefore, Lent, which begins Ash Wednesday, may be considered to continue until the Easter Triduum starts—that is, through Holy Thursday (the Thursday before Easter Sunday)—or until Easter Sunday itself—that is, through Holy Saturday (the day before Easter Sunday).

Recall that Septuagesima Sunday occurs within 70 days of Easter, Sexagesima Sunday occurs within 60 days of Easter, and Quinquagesima Sunday occurs within 50 days of Easter. Similarly, the Lenten Season is known in Latin by the name Quadragesima, which refers to the 40 day length of Lent. In reality, Lent lasts 46 days and only lasts 40 days when excluding Sundays from the counting if one uses the Ash Wednesday through Holy Saturday accounting. (For the first 6 or 7 centuries, Lent began on the Sunday after Quinquagesima Sunday, so–excluding Sundays from the accounting–Lent lasted 36 days; the four days prior to Quadragesima Sunday were added no later than 714 AD to bring the number to 40 days.) Alternatively, it lasts 44 days in reality and 38 days excluding Sundays if one uses the Ash Wednesday through Holy Thursday accounting. Because Sundays are excluded from days of fasting (every Sunday in Lent is seen as a commemoration of the Resurrection, so fasting is excluded on Sundays) but Good Friday and Holy Saturday are included, the total number of fasting days is still 40 regardless of which method you use.

In some eastern churches (e.g., Eastern Orthodox and Byzantine Rite Eastern Catholics), where Sundays are included as days of fasting, the 40 days of Lent are considered to begin on Clean Monday (the Monday after Ash Wednesday) instead of on Ash Wednesday, and to end on the Friday before Palm Sunday (which is itself the Sunday prior to Easter Sunday). In this version, Lent (or, as they call it, “Great Lent”) truly does last 40 days (including Sundays in the counting).

This year, Lent will extend from 18 February (Ash Wednesday) to 2 April (Holy Thursday) or 4 April (Holy Saturday).

The  Final Temptation in the DesertWHAT IS IT?

In Latin, Lent is known as Quadragesima, in reference to the forty days as described above. The name “Lent” in English comes from Old English “lencten” (“spring”) and English “long” in reference to the facts that Lent occurs in spring, when the days begin to visibly lengthen. As discussed above, Lent may last 38, 40, 44, or 46 days, depending on the method of counting utilized. At any rate, the season lasts roughly 40 days and so is commemorative of Christ’s 40-day fast in the desert, which marked the beginning of His ministry (Matthew 4:1-2, Mark 1:12-13, Luke 4:1-2). Jesus also prophetically commanded His disciples to fast when He died (Matthew 9:15). It having been a Sabbath, the disciples may very well have fasted the day after His death, whether or not they recalled or understood His command. Although this would have been primarily on Holy Saturday rather than for the 40 days leading up to His death, Christians very traditionally (that is, from the first century AD and possibly from the first year after His death and resurrection) fasted during the annual commemoration of His burial. Lent gradually lengthened over time for various reasons until it reached approximately 40 days.

Whereas the Christmas cycle celebrates the Incarnation, God coming down among us and clothing Himself in our humanity, the Lent and Easter cycle celebrates the Redemption, whereby this same Jesus created the way for us to become “partakers of His Divinity” (see “ANTIPHON FOR LENT” in Maria Von Trapp’s book). The best-known traditions of Lent are fasting and abstinence. In the same way that Jesus fasted 40 days in the desert to prepare for His ministry and eventual Redemption, we fast and abstain for 40 days to prepare for Easter, “the commemoration of our Redemption.” It is a time to experience a forty-day retreat from the noise of the world. Traditionally, during this closed time, Christians abstain from outside entertainment such as parties and dances; as a result, we have “ample time for the imitation of Christ.”

calvary-abraham-janssens-van-nuyssenIt is also a time for instruction and penance. “Instruction” refers to a Scripture and other reading program carefully chosen to feed the mind, the heart, and the soul. “Instruction” comes from a practice that developed over 300 years or so between the first and fourth centuries AD. The aforementioned time of fasting and prayer prior to Easter was especially important for catechumens (new converts), who were only baptized on Easter Eve, the week leading up to which they spent learning the basics of the doctrine and preparing for their baptism. When Christianity became legal following Emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity, and probably in large part because it was popular and expedient due to the fact that it was the emperor’s claimed religion, many “converts” (real, popular, or political) joined the church, bringing with them their ignorance of the religion and their traditional pagan practices, probably also with a certain level of indifference to or scorn for the doctrine of their claimed religion. Thus, the church instituted the practice of requiring all Christians, new or old to the faith, to undergo this fasting and training annually.

“Penance” also comes from a practice dating as far back as the 300s AD wherein people who had committed serious public sins and scandals entered a period of “public penance” from Ash Wednesday until Holy Thursday, whereon they were reconciled, absolved of their sins, and allowed to receive the Lord’s Supper. On Ash Wednesday, the penitents would stand barefoot, dressed in sackcloth, heads bowed. The bishop would meet each one and assign certain acts of penance depending on the crime committed. Then he would lead them by the hand, single file, all holding hands, into the church. At the altar, the penitents, the bishop, and all the clergy recited the seven penitential psalms (Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, and 143). Then the bishop would approach each penitent, sprinkle him with holy water, throw blessed ashes on him, and announce that he or she is cast out of the church because of his or her sins. Finally, they were led out of the church and forbidden to return until Holy Thursday, on which they would receive “the solemn rite of their reconciliation.” During Lent, they would stay apart from their families in a place of voluntary confinement, such as a monastery, and devote themselves to prayer, manual labor, and charitable work. They were also forbidden to talk to anyone else, bathe, or cut their hair, and were required to go barefoot and sleep on the ground or on straw. For especially grievous sins and crimes, the penitent would sometimes be made to undergo public penance for a longer period of time with additional restraints or acts of penance required. In modern times, the church follows the example of the Ninevites in the book of Jonah who repented in sackcloth and ashes, which we use today to “humble our pride by reminding us of our death sentence as a consequence of our sins.” Ashes (made by burning the palms from the previous year’s Palm Sunday) are sprinkled on churchgoers’ heads and the priest announces, “Remember, man, that thou art dust, and unto dust shalt thou return.”

As described above, it is also a time of fasting and abstinence. “Fasting” refers to the quantity of food that may be eaten while “abstinence” refers to the kind of food, but also to abstaining from certain activities. In ancient times, fasting during Lent meant not eating food until sundown. In modern times, it means that you essentially eat the quantity of two meals every day, but spread out through three mealtimes. In other words, you’d essentially eat a half-meal, another half-meal, and then a full meal (or in any other preferred order). The abstinence during Lent was anything that came from animals: meat, fish, milk or milk products, etc. Lenten food could only be vegetables, fruit, and bread made from flour, water, and salt. In fact, this is the source of the pretzel. Since bread could only be made with flour, water, and salt, people attempted to make it look more appealing by shaping it into the form of a ring and a cross in memory of the Cross of Christ, and then later into the (modern) shape of two arms crossed in prayer. In modern times, abstinence involves only the meat of warm-blooded animals and birds or the soup made from it (in other words, no bouillon cubes or chicken broth, etc., is permitted), therefore permitting seafood and the meat of other cold-blooded animals (reptiles, amphibians, snails, etc.). However, there were and are a great many variations on the fasting, from bread alone to everything except warm-blooded meat. In fact, in countries with lower standards of living, no fasting is required, only prayer and charitable works. In modern times, fasting is required for those 18-59 years old whereas abstinence is required for those 14 and older, but both come with exceptions for the ill, the elderly, the very young, and those with special needs. Candy was traditionally permitted because spiced candies (very different from most candy today) were considered medicinal.

As noted above, “abstinence” also refers to activities, not just food. For example, grand wedding ceremonies, dances, and parties were not permitted. In more modern times, people would abstain from outside entertainment such as going to the theater. Traditionally, some or all money and/or time saved on this time of fasting and abstinence is donated to charitable organizations and/or work.

Before the body of Christ was added to crucifixes during the time of St. Francis of Assisi (1181-1226), they were often adorned with jewels. To prevent Christians from adoring the ornamented crucifixes, they were veiled with purple fabrics, which is how the color purple became associated with penance and mourning. Today, in commemoration of the solemnity of the event, churches still veil crucifixes, statues, and other elaborate religious symbols with violet fabrics, except in processionals and except for anything commemorating the Stations of the Cross (see Footnote 1). When only small purple fabrics are available, only the faces of statues are veiled. When purple fabrics are not available at all, statues are either removed altogether or, if that is impossible, turned to face the wall. Furthermore, as a sign of solemn mourning for His death, flowers are also removed. Traditionally, the last two weeks of Lent were known as Passiontide, but the term has been officially removed from the Catholic liturgical calendar. Although the term has been removed, the last two weeks are still very different from the rest of Lent and, in places where crucifixes are not veiled on Ash Wednesday, mark the time of veiling. In some Protestant churches, the purple veils are exchanged for black veils, the color of mourning, on Good Friday. Then, on Easter Sunday, they are replaced with white veils.

Another interesting Lenten custom is to attend seven different churches during Holy Week in commemoration of Jesus walking to Calvary. The Stations of the Cross (see Footnote 1) are often observed. Every evening of Lent, adherents sing a Lenten hymn. Furthermore, Glorias and Alleluias are not said or sung during this time (except on any important observances that happen to fall during Lent for that year) because such hymns are joyful and contradict the solemn nature of Lent.

For Christians (primarily certain eastern groups such as Eastern Orthodox) who commemorate Lent beginning on Clean Monday (the Monday after Ash Wednesday), the week following Ash Wednesday, which for them is the first week of Lent, is referred to as Clean Week. During this time, adherents “cleanse” themselves by going to confession and it is also customary to thoroughly clean the house this week. This is similar to the Jewish practice of thoroughly cleaning the house in preparation for the Passover. Clean Week often corresponds to New Year’s on the Julian calendar, which is the calendar Eastern Orthodox and other eastern churches use, so it may be seen as not only “Spring Cleaning,” but also as a cleansing in preparation for the new year.


Each Sunday of Lent has a Latin name, though the names are not used in most denominations. These names are derived from the beginning of each Sunday’s “introit,” which is a prayer said prior to the Eucharist (Lord’s Supper). The first Sunday is Invocabit, second Reminiscere, third Oculi, fourth Laetare, and fifth Judica. The sixth Sunday is known as Palm Sunday and has no associated Latin name. Of these, only Laetare Sunday will have a post dedicated to it in this series. On this Sunday, the solemnity of Lent is broken by rejoicing and the purple color may be exchanged for rose or pink. The fifth Sunday, Judica, is also known as Passion Sunday because it marked the beginning of Passiontide, which, as described above, is no longer officially commemorated by the Catholic Church. However, in the Anglican Church, Passiontide is still commemorated; on this day, the priests wear crimson rather than violet. The sixth Sunday, Palm Sunday, marks the beginning of Holy Week, the last week of Lent before Easter. As explained above, the Easter Triduum roughly includes Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday and may be considered a mini-season on the liturgical calendar. I will generally consider these separate from Lent and write a separate post about them.


Lent for February this year incorporates the following events:

  • 18 Feb: Ash Wednesday
  • 22 Feb – 1 Mar: Ember Week—Ember Days are 25 Feb (Wed), 27 Feb (Fri), and 28 Feb (Sat)

Also included in February on leap years (therefore not on this year) is:

  • 29: Feria


There are a great many activities associated with Lent.

  • (Traditional) Finalize Lenten Resolutions. As discussed in the post on Pre-Lent, Lent is a time for sacrifice and self-denial, and so it is customary to write out some resolutions of how you intend to commemorate that focus. Maria Von Trapp writes that Lent resolutions should not use a negative approach (“I won’t do this or that”) but a positive approach (Maria’s examples are: “I will use these three books…” “I will use the time I save by abstaining from television for this and this…” “I will use the money I save by not going to the movies for alms given to…”)
  • (Traditional) Instruction. Set up a reading plan to nourish your mind, spirit, and heart. If you are in a family or small group who all are doing the same, regularly discuss your books with each other. The instruction should also specifically include the Bible.
    • Bible. Choose something that interests you. You may select a longer book to read through once during the 40 days of Lent or a shorter book to read through numerous times. This is a time for asking questions and seeking the answers, as through word studies and Bible commentaries.
    • Mind. Choose something that involves serious research. Maria Von Trapp’s examples: “One year we might work on the history of the Church; another year on the sacraments; or we might carefully study a scholarly life of Our Lord Jesus Christ; or a book on Christian ethics; or the Encyclicals of the Pope; or a book on dogma.”
    • Spirit. Choose something that involves “spiritual reading of a high order”; that is, something on theology. Most of the examples Maria offers are distinctly Catholic. I’ll leave it to you to choose something that fits or challenges your theology as you see appropriate.
    • Heart. Choose something that encourages you. Maria’s example is “to read the biographies of people who started out as we did but had their minds set on following the word of Our Lord… In other words, to read a well-written biography of a saint (canonized or not)…” For example, you might choose to read the biography of C.S. Lewis or Jim Elliot, or even a biography about a much more ancient person, like St. Francis of Assisi. The biography should be well-written in that it shows both the person’s failures and successes. Maria says reading such a biography “will have the same effect on us as it had once on St. Augustine, who said, after watching saintly people living a holy life, ‘If he could do it, and she, why not I?’ ”
  • (Traditional) Fasting and Abstinence. Practice fasting and abstinence.
    • Lenten Bread. Make Lenten bread (bread involving no animal products), such as the Dark Rye Bread recipe given by Maria Von Trapp in her book ( under “Lent.”
    • Pretzels. Make (or buy) pretzel bread (that is, soft pretzels).
  • (Traditional) Other Abstinence. Refrain from outside entertainment. If possible, keep track of the money you would have spent and, if that is your Lenten resolution, donate it.
  • (Traditional) Hymns. It is tradition to sing a Lenten hymn every evening of Lent. (If you play an instrument, you can spent Lent learning to play a Lenten hymn!) See Footnote 2 for some examples of Lenten hymns.


As with Ordinary Time, Pre-Lent, and Carnival, there are no activities for Lent as a whole, only for individual events that fall within Lent.





Footnote 1: Stations of the Cross. The “Stations of the Cross” or “Via Dolorosa” (a.k.a. “Way of the Cross,” “Via Crucis,” “Way of Sorrows,” or “The Way”) is a series of often-sculpted artistic representations of Jesus carrying the cross to Calvary. There are fourteen Stations and the practice of moving the plaques around to commemorate the Passion of Christ (essentially, His death) started with St. Francis of Assisi (1181-1226). Moving the plaques is generally performed during Lent. One source I read says the idea for the Stations of the Cross probably came from a common pathway created by Franciscan monks in the 1300s for pilgrims to make the journey to the holy places of Jerusalem (nine of which were built along the Via Dolorosa road, hence the adoption of that alternate title for the Stations of the Cross). However, the Stations of the Cross were already in existence by St. Francis of Assisi’s time, which predates the 1300s building of the Via Dolorosa by at least 100 years, so I’m not sure how accurate that is.

The fourteen Stations include: (1) Jesus is condemned to death, (2) Jesus carries His cross, (3) Jesus falls the first time, (4) Jesus meets His mother, (5) Simon of Cyrene helps Jesus carry the cross, (6) Veronica wipes the face of Jesus, (7) Jesus falls the second time, (8) Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem, (9) Jesus falls the third time, (10) Jesus is stripped of His garments, (11) Crucifixion: Jesus is nailed to the cross, (12) Jesus dies on the cross, (13) Jesus is taken down from the cross (Deposition or Lamentation), and (14) Jesus is laid in the tomb. Sometimes, a fifteenth Station for the Resurrection of Jesus is included. Stations 3, 4, 6, 7, and 9 do not have a basis in Scripture, and station 6 was not apparently known before medieval times.

An alternative, the Scriptural Way of the Cross, was developed in 1991 and blessed by Pope Benedict XVI in 2007. It includes: (1) Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, (2) Jesus is betrayed by Judas and arrested, (3) Jesus is condemned by the Sanhedrin, (4) Jesus is denied by Peter, (5) Jesus is judged by Pilate, (6) Jesus is scourged and crowned with thorns, (7) Jesus takes up His cross, (8) Jesus is helped by Simon to carry His cross, (9) Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem, (10) Jesus is crucified, (11) Jesus promises His kingdom to the repentant thief, (12) Jesus entrusts Mary and John to each other, (13) Jesus dies on the cross, and (14) Jesus is laid in the tomb. This list excludes both Jesus’ first hearing with Pilate and His subsequent hearing with Herod, prior to his third hearing with Pilate, which is depicted in Station #5.

A similar set of artwork, the Via Lucis, is used in some churches during Easter to commemorate the Resurrection and Ascension.


Footnote 2: Lenten Hymns. Lenten hymns are traditionally sung every day of Lent. Lists of such hymns can be found here and here and here (this one aimed at Baptists!). It seems that most Lenten hymns focus on Jesus’ crucifixion, our sinfulness and penitence, and the forty days of Lent. The ones recommended by Maria Von Trapp that are not 100% Catholic are:

  • Head All Scarred and Bleeding (here)
  • Open, O Hard and Sinful Heart (here)

The ones I recognized on the above lists (plus one not on the lists) include:

  • I Need Thee Every Hour (Annie S Hawks, 1872)
  • Just as I Am (Charlotte Elliott, 1835)
  • O Sacred Head Now Wounded (Bernard of Clairvau, 1091-1153, or Arnulf of Louvain, before 1250; English translation John Gambold, 1752)
  • Rock of Ages, Cleft for Me (Augustus Montage Toplady, 1763)
  • O, How He Loves You and Me (Kurt Kaiser, 1975)
  • Come Thou Fount (Robert Robinson, 1757)
  • Draw Me Nearer (Fanny Crosby, 1875)
  • Grace Greater Than Our Sin (Julia H. Johnston, 1911)

One thought on “Christian Traditions 010: Lent Season

  1. Pingback: Christian Traditions 013: Ash Wednesday | Schaabling Shire Shoppe

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