Lent: 40 Days of Prayer and Fasting


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Photo: of a lit candle.

 

Image: portion of illuminated manuscript page from "The Book of Kells."Photo: Monastery in Meteora, Greece. One of 24 cliff-top Monasteries located in Meteora, Greece.

Lent 2011:

  • Protestant: March 9 - April 23 (Except Sundays, which celebrate the Resurrection). April 24 is Easter.

  • Roman Catholic: Same (Except that Lent officially ends at sundown on Holy Thursday).

  • Eastern Orthodox: Great Lent: March 7 - April 23 

(Historically, a Liturgical day always begins and ends at sunset of the evening before the Calendar date).

While some Protestant groups including Baptists and Pentecostals generally have not observed Lent, other Protestants such as Lutherans, Presbyterians, and Anglicans have always observed it.

   Jesus said, "When you fast..." (Matthew 6:17) and, "...but the days will come, when the bridegroom shall be taken from them, and then shall they fast." (Matthew 9:15).  Our Lord expected that His followers would fast after His Resurrection.  However, the Bible does not require of Christians any specific times or amounts of fasting. 

(For more on Fasting in general, see our page: Growing In Christ: 4. Fasting, a portion of which is also posted farther below on this page).

...a period of fasting and penitence (self-examination and repentance)...

 Lent is a period of fasting and penitence (self-examination and repentance) during which observers have historically eaten sparingly.  The 40-day length of the fast was established in the 4th century.  Following some of these ancient Christian practices (Church Seasons) can indeed be of spiritual benefit.

The word Lent is a Teutonic word that meant "the spring season."

The Resurrection of Jesus Christ is the Single Most Important Event in the History of the World 

The Resurrection of Jesus Christ is the single most important event in the history of the world (and therefore also in Christianity), making Easter the most important Holiday (Holy Day) celebrated by Christians.  The Christian season of Lent can be used as a time to draw closer to God in preparation of this annual celebration.  It is a form of emulation of our Lord's example in His 40-day Fast in the wilderness (deserts) of Judaea in preparation for his public ministry.

You can use the time to pray for your personal ministry, your family, or whatever you feel led to pray for.

One way to observe Lent is to "deny yourself" in some way regarding food and drink (a "partial fast" of eating less than usual, or temporarily "giving up" desserts, meat, a meal, or whatever you may choose) and to replace this with extra time devoted to prayer and Bible reading/study, or the reading of a Christian book (find good Christian books on various subjects on our page: Recommended Books).

We have decided to follow the observance of the season of Lent as it was practiced by the early Celtic Christians.  As a "partial" fast for forty days before Easter, "skipping" the Sundays, which are considered "feast days" (or "festival" days) in Celebration of the Resurrection of Christ, and are therefore not observed as "fast" days, or counted in the forty day total. 

Lenten Observance Has Varied  

The Western Church follows the Celtic observance, while the Eastern observance is somewhat different.  In the Eastern (Orthodox) Churches, where Saturdays and Sundays are both exempt "feast" or "festival" days, the period of Lent is the eight weeks before Easter.   Practices involving Fasting and other forms of self-denial vary in different Protestant (and the different Anglican or Episcopal Churches).  

Historically, Celtic Christians tended to differ with the Roman Catholic Church on Church Calendar calculations, and lean toward that of the Eastern Orthodox Churches, but regarding Lent this is not the case (although the Celtic Church observed the Orthodox calculation for the actual date of when Easter would be observed, rejecting Rome's dating system).  The early Christians celebrated Easter on Passover (we discuss this further, below on this same page) which occurred on the 14th of the Jewish month of Nisan, and therefore did not always fall on the first day of the week (Sunday).  

Since every Sunday was a celebration of Christ's Resurrection  because He had risen on a Sunday, the first day of the week; the desire to celebrate Easter (or "Christian Passover": the Book of Hebrews speaks of Christ as our Paschal, or Passover Lamb; the Gospel of John speaks of Him as "the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world"---the Eastern Orthodox Church refer to Easter as "Pascha", which is just the Greek word for "Passover") on a Sunday seems to be what led to the adoption of new ways for determining what date each year to celebrate it on.  Sunday was the day when the early Church met at sunrise before going to work: remember that Sunday was just a regular day in the Roman Empire, including in Judaea, where Saturday was observed as the weekly Sabbath day of rest.

The Roman Catholic Church has relaxed its traditional canon laws on fasting.  In February of 1966, Pope Paul VI issued an apostolic constitution making fasting and abstinence for Roman Catholics obligatory only on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. 

Athanasius On Lent

In 331 A.D., Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria (see: Athanasuian Creed; Athanasius: Praying the Psalms; Book Review: On the Incarnation by St. Athanasius) urged upon his own Christian people the observance of forty days of fasting preliminary to (but not including) the stricter fast of Holy Week (the week immediately preceding Easter), which was observed in that era.  In 339 A.D., Athanasius visited Rome and traveled throughout Europe.  He wrote to the Alexandrian Christians: 

"...to the end that while all the world is fasting, we who are in Egypt should not become a laughing-stock as the only people who do not fast, but take our pleasure in those days..."  -Athanasius ("Festal Letters")

A Christian Custom: Not A Biblical Requirement

The Lenten Fast is not commanded or even mentioned in the Bible.  The writings of Irenaus imply that the entire week before Easter was a celebration of Christ's Resurrection, with fasting being done only on Good Friday (Irenaus was a student of Polycarp, who worked with and eventually succeeded the Apostle John as Bishop of Ephesus...Irenaus when a little boy heard the Apostle John preach and teach),  By 300 A.D., the week before Easter was apparently an especially strict fast in addition to the 40 Day Lenten Fast preceding it. 

We do not see this in Celtic Christian practice (where the week before Easter is part of the 40 Day Lenten period), and the Celtic observance eventually was to became the customary practice of the entire Western church (but not of the Eastern church).  After the Protestant Reformation each Christian group made its own decision concerning Lenten observance, or non-observance.

By what date we are not certain, but the early Church had training "classes" for those who became Christians, lasting for as long as 2-3 years.  Often the new Christians would be baptized on Easter, after first fasting for two or three days (contrast this with the Book of Acts, in which Philip baptized the Ethiopian Eunuch as soon as he believed).  This is the origin of Lenten fasting.  

The new Christians would pray all night long, the night before Easter, and proclaim that "Christ is risen" with the sun's rising.  After baptism, they would be given white robes to wear for a week.  This was symbolic of their new life in Christ, and began the custom of wearing new clothes on Easter.

The Resurrection of Christ was celebrated weekly every Sunday, and commemorated yearly on Passover (the word "Easter" is a Teutonic name for the season that only came to be used many centuries later).  Passover (today's Easter) was celebrated by the earliest Christians on the 14th of the Jewish month of Nisan (which falls in March-April).  Jesus was understood to be the Paschal (Passover) Lamb whose sacrifice and shed blood is our redemption from the penalty of sin: the second death...eternal separation from God.

And that brings us back once more to the applicable scripture in the Word of God:

"One man esteems one day above another: another esteems every day alike.  Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind.  He that regards the day, regards it unto the Lord, and he that regards not the day, to the Lord does he not regard it.  He that eats, eats to the Lord, for he gives God thanks; and he that eats not, to the Lord he eats not, and gives God thanks."  -Romans 14:5,6 ___________________________________________________

We reproduce below a portion of our page on Fasting: 

Growing In Christ: 4. Fasting

Fasting: going without food shows our dependence on God, brings us closer to God, supercharges our prayers.  Jesus said: 'When you fast...' (Matthew 6:16) ...not if you fast.  "But the days will come, when the bridegroom shall be taken away from them, and then shall they fast in those days.' (Mark 2:20).  'It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God.' (Matthew 4:4).  Fasting is Lifetime Habit Number 8.  

A Biblical "total" fast is water only.  When people in the Bible fasted , they would still drink water.  You should not go without water: this could do damage to your Kidneys.  The Bible says of Jesus' forty-day fast in the desert that "afterward he hungered"; never that he was thirsty.  A "partial" fast can also be very effective.  A "partial" fast could be giving up anything for a while.  Chocolate, desserts, red meat, all meat, drinks other than water, replacing a meal with a glass of milk (or soy milk).  John Wesley thought that his Methodist Pastors should fast until 5:00 at least one day a week.  The Bible does not require of Christians any specific times or amounts of fasting.

 (Note: Before fasting, you should check with your Doctor.  Some persons should not fast: those who are sick, pregnant women, those with certain conditions like Diabetes, etc.  Persons in these situations can substitute by giving up something else.  For instance, on a "fast" day, you could give up an hour of television (or all television for that day); replacing it with extra Bible Reading and Prayer or the reading of a Christian book (or listening on CD or Cassette). ___________________________________________________

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Differences of Observance in the Eastern and Western Churches:

Note: In Orthodox Churches, this season is called The Great Lent.  It begins on Clean Monday.  

The Western Church follows the Celtic observance, while Eastern Church observance is somewhat different. 

 In the Eastern (Orthodox) Churches, where Saturdays and Sundays are both exempt "feast" or "festival" days, the period of Lent is the eight weeks before Easter.

Western Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, 46 days before western Easter.  Sundays are not counted, equaling forty days.  Christians do not fast on Sundays (the Lord's Day, which is always a "Feast Day, in celebration of the Resurrection).  Jesus withdrew into the wilderness for forty days before beginning His ministry (Matthew 4:1-11).  Observing Lent is our imitation of Christ in our preparation for Easter (also called Pascha, or Christian Passover).

Eastern Lent begins on Clean Monday, 55 days before eastern Easter. Not counting the Saturdays or the Sundays, equals forty days.  Eastern Christians, in common with all Chrstians, do not fast on Sundays (the Lord's Day).  In addition, they also do not fast on Saturdays (the Old Testament Sabbath). 

Practices involving Fasting and other forms of self-denial vary in different Protestant (and the various Anglican or Episcopal Churches).

In the Roman Catholic Church, Lent actually ends on Holy Thursday, two days before Easter

Lenten Practice of the Eastern Church 

The Orthodox Church does not skip over Sundays when calculating the length of the Great Lent. 

Therefore, the Great Lent always begins on Clean Monday, the seventh Monday before Easter, and ends on the Friday before Palm Sunday—using of course the Eastern date for Easter

The Lenten fast is relaxed on the weekends in honor of the Sabbath (Saturday) and the Resurrection (Sunday). 

The Great Lent is followed by Lazarus Saturday and Palm Sunday, which are feast days, then the Lenten fast resumes on Monday of Holy Week

Technically, in the Eastern Church, Holy Week is a separate season from the Great Lent. ____________