“What are you giving up for Lent?”
It’s a question we might hear or ask of someone else each springtime before Easter, possibly with a smudge of ashes across our foreheads. But why do Catholics “give up” anything for Lent? What is “Lent,” anyway? And why do we walk around in public with a smudge of ashes on our foreheads once a year?
Lent refers to a period of 40 days before Easter, beginning with Ash Wednesday and not including Sundays. We may associate it with ashes, memories of giving up chocolate or video games as children, and priests wearing purple vestments at Mass more often. A more in-depth answer can be found by looking at the history of Lent, and by considering why it's such a big deal in the Catholic faith.
A season of preparation
Periods of 40 days have great significance in the history of Christianity. Moses spent 40 days atop Mount Sinai before he received the 10 Commandments, and Jesus spent 40 days in the desert praying and fasting before beginning His public ministry.
Similarly, the Church uses 40 days before Easter as a time of preparation — a time for prayer and fasting, penance and almsgiving to acknowledge our sins, repent, and refocus on God.
Lent hasn’t always looked the way it does now, though. In the early Church, adults were instructed in the faith, and then baptized and confirmed at the Easter Vigil; the period leading up to Easter was a sort of “home stretch” before these people received the sacraments of initiation. Lent still fulfills this purpose today, as those who are preparing to be received into the Catholic faith await baptism, first communion, and confirmation at the Easter Vigil.
For those of us who are already Catholic, though, Lent serves a unique purpose. Early in the Church, spending a few days or even a symbolic 40 hours preparing for Easter was customary. By the 4th century, spending 40 days in prayer and fasting was a common practice. It became an opportunity for those who are already Catholic to reorient their lives toward God and turn away from sin. For the entire Church, Lent is a powerful way for all the faithful to prepare for the celebration of the central mystery of our faith: Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection.
A call to conversion
Lent is a time to call to mind our sins and acknowledge our need of a savior, so this season begins on Ash Wednesday when we receive ashes from a priest who says, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” or “Repent and believe in the Gospel.”
These two phrases really point to the essence of Lent. We receive ashes because they are symbolic of repentance — sorrow for sin — in the Bible. Receiving ashes while being reminded we are “dust” may sound a bit depressing, but it is really a call to conversion. Our time in this life is limited, and it is a reminder to focus on aligning our hearts with God, to detest sin, and to live in the way that He invites us to live so that at our death we may enjoy eternal life won for us by Christ.
We answer this call to conversion by three traditional Lenten practices: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Through prayer, we focus on aligning ourselves with God, listening to His voice just as Moses did on Mount Sinai and Jesus did in the desert. By fasting, we deny ourselves something we want or enjoy as an act of repentance and to help us grow in self-discipline, so that we may more easily say “no” to sin in the future. And through almsgiving, or charity, we mirror in a small way Christ’s self-gift by making ourselves a gift to others.
New life in Christ
The word “Lent” is derived from the Anglo-Saxon word “lencten,” which refers to the season of spring. It’s not a coincidence that most of Lent falls in the spring months because it is a time to seek new life in Christ by virtue of our baptism and through our prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. It’s an opportunity to acknowledge our sins and repent, and to reorient our lives to embrace the renewal — and ultimately, eternal salvation — found in the saving work of Christ in His passion, death, and resurrection.