Lenten FAQs

When does Lent begin and end? Why is it called Lent? 

Lent begins on Ash Wednesday and comes to an end before the evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday. 

In the English language, Lent was formerly referred to by the Latin term quadragesima(translation of the original Greek tessarakoste, the “fortieth day” before Easter). This original naming is preserved in many languages, e.g., Spanish cuaresma, Portuguesequaresma, French carême, and Italian quaresima. However, in the late Middle Ages, as sermons began to be given in the vernacular instead of Latin, Anglo-Saxon word began to use the Germanic word lengten, which means spring (lengten derives from the Germanic root for long because in the springtime the days visibly lengthen). As Anglo-Saxon English modernized, the word linquistically morphed into the word “lent.” 

Clearly Ash Wednesday draws it name from the practice of distributing ashes, but why ashes on Ash Wednesday? 

Ashes are an ancient symbol of repentance (sackcloth and ashes). According to the Bible, ashes express mourning. Dusting oneself with ashes was the penitent’s way of expressing sorrow for sins and faults. An ancient example of one expressing one’s penitence is found in Job 42:3-6. Job says to God: “I had heard of you by word of mouth, but now my eye has seen you. Therefore I disown what I have said, and repent in dust and ashes.” (vv. 5-6, NAB) Other examples are found in several other books of Sacred Scripture including, Numbers 19:9, 19:17, Jonah 3:6, Matthew 11:21, and Luke 10:13, and Hebrews 9:13. 

Ashes also remind us of our mortality (“remember that you are dust”) and our fallen nature. Yet at the same time remind us that when we will stand before God for judgment, we stand before God in the grace of Christ. In the Catholic tradition, the ashes are a reminder of our connection to the death and resurrection motif of Baptism. To prepare well for the day we die, we must die now to sin and rise to new life in Christ (Romans 6:3-4) Being marked with ashes at the beginning of Lent indicates our recognition of the need for deeper conversion of our lives during this season of renewal. 

At Masses and services of worship on this day, ashes are imposed on the foreheads of the faithful (or on the tonsure spots, in the case of some clergy). The priest, minister, or in some cases officiating layperson, marks the forehead of each participant with black ashes in the shape of a cross, which the worshipper traditionally retains until washing it off after sundown. The act echoes the ancient Near Eastern tradition of throwing ashes over one’s head to signify repentance before God (as related in the Bible). The priest or minister says one of the following when applying the ashes: 

  • Remember, O man, that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return. (Genesis 3:19)
  • Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel. (Mark 1:15)
  • Repent, and hear the good news. (Mark 1:15)

The ashes used in the service of worship or Mass are sacramentals, not a Sacrament. As such, ashes may be given to any Christian. In the Roman Catholic Church, Ash Wednesday is observed by fasting, abstinence from meat, and repentance—a day of contemplating one’s sins against God, neighbor and self.

Some Christians do not celebrate Ash Wednesday saying that the practice is inconsistent with Scripture, citing Matthew 6:16–18, where Jesus gave prescriptions for fasting: 

  • “When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites. They neglect their appearance, so that they may appear to others to be fasting. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you may not appear to be fasting, except to your Father who is hidden.”

The argument is that Jesus warned against fasting to gain favor from other people and that he also warned his followers that they should fast in private, not letting others know they were fasting. For these reasons, some Christians avoid the practice. Interestingly, the reading from Matthew is the Gospel reading for Ash Wednesday. The ashes represent the fallen nature of humanity and are not representative of the fast.

I understand religious observances of Lent include fasting and abstinence. What exactly are the guidelines or rules for fasting and abstinence?

The dual disciplines of fasting and abstinence have a long history in the Catholic Church. Going back to the early Church, the purpose behind the custom of self denial is not punishment; it is to simplify our lifestyles so that we create a certain emptiness. In this way, freed from all distractions, we are able to hear and respond to God’s continued call to conversion and holiness. 

  • Fasting is to be observed on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday by all Catholics between the ages of 18 to 59 years (inclusive). On days of fasting, one full meal is allowed. Two smaller meals, sufficient to maintain strength, may be taken according to one’s needs, but together they should not equal another full meal. Eating between meals is not permitted, but liquids are allowed.
  • Abstinence from meat is to be observed by all Catholics who are 14 years of age and older. Ash Wednesday, all the Fridays of Lent, and Good Friday are days of abstinence.

NoteIf a person is unable to observe the above regulations due to ill health or other serious reasons, they are urged to practice other forms of self denial that are suitable to their condition.  

Lent lasts for 40 days – but it seems to me that there are more than 40 days from Ash Wednesday until Easter? How are the 40 days counted? 

Ash Wednesday always falls 46 days before Easter. Remember that during the Lenten Season, Sundays remain a festive day of celebration of the Lord’s Resurrection, as are all Sunday celebrations. (Although we celebrate them liturgically as part of Lent, the Lord’s Day cannot be a day of fast and abstinence.) There are six Sundays between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday. Thus the 40-day period. The astute among you will remember from a FAQ above that Ash Wednesday is the beginning of Lent with the end of Lent coming on Holy Thursday-so, isn’t that only 38 days, not counting Sundays? True enough. The older tradition of “40” continues, while the liturgical tradition of ending on Holy Thursdays marks a shift from Lenten preparation to participation in Holy Week ceremonies. 

What is the reason for ‘40’ days, as opposed to another number? 

The number forty has many Biblical references: the forty days Moses spent on Mount Sinai with God (Exodus 24:18); the forty days and nights Elijah spent walking to Mount Horeb (1 Kings 19:8); God made it rain for forty days and forty nights in the days of Noah (Genesis 7:4); the Hebrew people wandered forty years traveling to the Promised Land (Numbers 14:33); Jonah in his prophecy of judgment gave the city of Nineveh forty days in which to repent (Jonah 3:4). 

Jesus retreated into the desert, where he fasted for forty days, and was tempted by the devil (Matthew 4:1-2, Mark 1:12-13, Luke 4:1-2). Jesus overcame all three of Satan’s temptations by citing scripture to the devil, at which point the devil left him, angels ministered to Jesus, and he began his ministry. Jesus further said that his disciples should fast “when the bridegroom shall be taken from them” (Matthew 9:15), a reference to his Passion. Since, presumably, the Apostles fasted as they mourned the death of Jesus, Christians have traditionally fasted during the annual commemoration of his burial. 

There was a traditional belief that Jesus lay for forty hours in the tomb which led to the forty hours of total fast that preceded the Easter celebration in the early Church (the biblical reference to ‘three days in the tomb’ is understood as spanning three days, from Friday afternoon to early Sunday morning, rather than three 24 hour periods of time). One of the most important ceremonies at Easter was the baptism of the catechumens on the vigil of Easter. The fast was initially undertaken by the catechumens to prepare them for the reception of the sacraments of initiation. Later, the period of fasting from Good Friday until Easter Day was extended to six days, to correspond with the six weeks of training, necessary to give the final instruction to those converts who were to be baptized. As outlined in the “Historical Development” section below, over time these catechumenal practices were fused into other penitential practices associated with monastic traditions of 40-day fasts.

During Sundays in Lent, the RCIA celebrates “Scrutinies.” What are the Scrutinies?

The primary way that the Church assists the catechumens (called the elect after the celebration of the Rite of Election on the First Sunday of Lent) in this conversion process during Lent is through the celebration of the rites called Scrutinies. These ritual celebrations on the Third, Fourth and Fifth Sundays of Lent are communal prayers celebrated around the elect to strengthen them to overcome the power of sin in their lives and to grow in virtue. To scrutinize something means to examine it closely. The community does not scrutinize the catechumens; the catechumens scrutinize their own lives and allow God to scrutinize them and to heal them. 

There is a danger in celebrating the Scrutinies if the community thinks of the elect as the only sinners in our midst who need conversion. All of us are called to continuing conversion throughout our lives, so we join with the elect in scrutinizing our own lives and praying to God for the grace to overcome the power of sin that still infects our hearts. 

Many parishes today seek to surface the concrete issues that the elect need to confront; these issues then become the focus of the intercessions during the Scrutinies. Some parishes extend this discernment process to the wider community so that all are called to name the ways that evil continues to prevent them from living the gospel fully. Even if the parish does not do this in an organized way, every Catholic should spend some time reflecting on what obstacles to gospel living exist in his or her own life. Then when the Scrutinies are celebrated, we will all know that the prayers are for us as well as for the elect. 

Taking seriously this dynamic of scrutiny and conversion gives us a richer perspective on Lenten “giving up.” What we are to give up more than anything else is sin, which is to say we are to give up whatever keeps us from living out our baptismal promises fully. Along with the elect we all need to approach the season of Lent asking ourselves what needs to change in our lives if we are to live the gospel values that Jesus taught us. Our journey through these forty days should be a movement ever closer to Christ and to the way of life he has exemplified for us. 

What are the “three pillars of Lent”? 

The three traditional pillars of Lenten observance are prayer, fasting and almsgiving. The key to renewed appropriation of these practices is to see their link to baptismal renewal. 

  • Prayer: More time given to prayer during Lent should draw us closer to the Lord. We might pray especially for the grace to live out our baptismal promises more fully. We might pray for the elect who will be baptized at Easter and support their conversion journey by our prayer. We might pray for all those who will celebrate the sacrament of reconciliation with us during Lent that they will be truly renewed in their baptismal commitment.
  • Fasting: Fasting is one of the most ancient practices linked to Lent. In fact, the paschal fast predates Lent as we know it. The early Church fasted intensely for two days before the celebration of the Easter Vigil. This fast was later extended and became a 40-day period of fasting leading up to Easter. Vatican II called us to renew the observance of the ancient paschal fast: “…let the paschal fast be kept sacred. Let it be celebrated everywhere on Good Friday and, where possible, prolonged throughout Holy Saturday, so that the joys of the Sunday of the Resurrection may be attained with uplifted and clear mind” (Divine Constitution on the Liturgy, # 110).

Fasting is more than a means of developing self-control. It is often an aid to prayer, as the pangs of hunger remind us of our hunger for God. The first reading on the Friday after Ash Wednesday points out another important dimension of fasting. The prophet Isaiah insists that fasting without changing our behavior is not pleasing to God. “This, rather, is the fasting that I wish: releasing those bound unjustly, untying the thongs of the yoke; setting free the oppressed, breaking every yoke; sharing your bread with the hungry, sheltering the oppressed and the homeless; clothing the naked when you see them, and not turning your back on your own” (Is 58:6-7). 

Fasting should be linked to our concern for those who are forced to fast by their poverty, those who suffer from the injustices of our economic and political structures, those who are in need for any reason. Thus fasting, too, is linked to living out our baptismal promises. By our Baptism, we are charged with the responsibility of showing Christ’s love to the world, especially to those in need. Fasting can help us realize the suffering that so many people in our world experience every day, and it should lead us to greater efforts to alleviate that suffering. 

Abstaining from meat traditionally also linked us to the poor, who could seldom afford meat for their meals. It can do the same today if we remember the purpose of abstinence and embrace it as a spiritual link to those whose diets are sparse and simple. That should be the goal we set for ourselves—a sparse and simple meal. Avoiding meat while eating lobster misses the whole point! 

  • Almsgiving: It should be obvious at this point that almsgiving, the third traditional pillar, is linked to our baptismal commitment in the same way. It is a sign of our care for those in need and an expression of our gratitude for all that God has given to us. Works of charity and the promotion of justice are integral elements of the Christian way of life we began when we were baptized.
What are the Stations of the Cross? 

Stations of the Cross (or Way of the Cross; in Latin, Via Crucis; also called the Via Dolorosaor Way of Sorrows, or simply, The Way) refers to the depiction of the final hours (or Passion) of Jesus, and the devotion commemorating the Passion. The popular tradition as chapel devotion began with St. Francis of Assisi and his followers who popularized the first Stations of the Cross when they were given custody of the holy sites in Jerusalem in the 14th century. The tradition spread quickly throughout the Roman Catholic Church in the medieval period. 

Stations are traditionally kept on Fridays during the Season of Lent and also on Good Friday – this latter celebration is not to be confused with the separate Celebration of the Lord’s Passion which is celebrated at 3 pm on Good Friday. 

The object of the Stations is to help the faithful to make a spiritual pilgrimage of prayer, through meditating upon the chief scenes of Christ’s sufferings and death. The penitential character is clear and often that is where the accent lies. But, when we pray the Stations of the Cross, we can also connect them with the baptismal character of Lent if we place the stations themselves in the context of the whole paschal mystery. In Baptism we are plunged into the mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection, and our baptismal commitment includes a willingness to give our life for others as Jesus did. Recalling his passion and death can remind us that we, too, may be called to suffer in order to be faithful to the call of God. This baptismal character is reflective the readings in Lent up until the 5th week. 

“The season of Lent has a twofold character: primarily by recalling or preparing for Baptism and by penance, it disposes the faithful, who more diligently hear the word of God and devote themselves to prayer, to celebrate the paschal mystery. This twofold character is to be brought into greater prominence….Hence, more use is to be made of the baptismal features proper to the Lenten liturgy….The same is to apply to the penitential elements. It is important to impress on the minds of the faithful not only the social consequences of sin but also that essence of the virtue of penance which leads to the detestation of sin as an offense against God…” (Constitution of the Sacred Liturgy, 109). 

The Stations themselves are usually a series of 14 pictures or sculptures depicting the following scenes: 

  1. Jesus is condemned to death 
  2. Jesus receives the cross 
  3. Jesus falls the first time 
  4. Jesus meets His Mother 
  5. Simon of Cyrene carries the cross 
  6. Veronica wipes Jesus’ face with her veil 
  7. Jesus falls the second time 
  8. Jesus meets the daughters 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’ body is removed from the cross 
  14. Jesus is laid in the tomb and covered in incense. 

Out of the fourteen traditional Stations of the Cross, only eight have clear scriptural foundation. Stations 3, 4, 6, 7, and 9 are not specifically attested to in the gospels and Station 13 (often represented Jesus’s body being taken down off the cross and laid in the arms of his mother Mary) seems to carry the tradition along with the gospels’ record which state that Joseph of Arimathea took Jesus down from the cross and buried him.) 

In order to provide a version of this devotion more closely aligned with the biblical accounts, Pope John Paul II introduced a new form of devotion, called the Scriptural Way of the Cross on Good Friday 1991. In 2007, Pope Benedict XVI approved this set of stations for meditation and public celebration: They follow this sequence: 

  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 good thief, 
  12. Jesus entrusts Mary and John to each other, 
  13. Jesus dies on the cross, 
  14. Jesus is laid in the tomb. 
What is the Triduum? 

Easter Triduum is a term used by the Catholic Church to denote the three days from the evening of Holy Thursday to the evening of Easter Sunday. The Triduum begins with the evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper and ends after evening prayers at sunset on Easter Day.  The Triduum rituals invite us all to baptismal renewal, par excellence. Here are some examples. 

  • Washing of Feet: After the homily on Holy Thursday, we imitate our master in the washing of feet. This ritual reminds us that our baptismal commitment means we are to be servants of one another. In the time of St. Ambrose in Milan, those who were baptized also had their feet washed, because of Jesus’ words to Peter: “Whoever has bathed has no need except to have his feet washed” (Jn 13:10). Many scholars have seen a baptismal reference in those words.
  • Veneration of the Cross: As part of our observance of Good Friday, we venerate the cross on which Christ died. The veneration challenges us to be willing to accept the cross, too, for it is the only way to resurrection. Through Baptism, we shared in Christ’s death that we might come to new life. Every year we are called to deepen our identification with his cross and resurrection.
  • Waters of Baptism: The core of our celebration of the Easter Vigil is the Baptism of the elect. As we share in their joy on this holy night, we are all called to renew our own baptismal promises, to live in the joy of life in the Risen One. Lent comes to its fulfillment around the waters of the font.

Want to know more about the Triduum rituals?  Click here.