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What is Lent?

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Stained glass at St John the Baptist's Anglican Church, Ashfield, New South Wales. Photo credit: Toby Hudson

Today (Feb. 22) marks the start of Lent, the Christian observance of the period between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday. For the believer, Lent is a time of prayer, penance, repentance, almsgiving, and self-denial. It is modeled on supposed events in the life of Jesus Christ.

According to the canonical gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus spent 40 days fasting in the desert before the beginning of his public ministry, during which he endured temptation by Satan. Ash Wednesday marked the beginning of this 40-day period of prayer and fasting. [Jesus Christ the Man: Does the Physical Evidence Hold Up?]

Modern-day Christians commit to fasting or giving up certain types of luxury during this time, while many Roman Catholic and some Protestant churches clear their altars of candles, flowers and other devotional offerings, and veil crucifixes and other religious icons in violet fabrics.

According to New Advent, the German word Lent originally meant, simply, the spring season. Since the Anglo-Saxon period, it has been used as the translation of the Latin term quadragesima, meaning the "fortieth day". This in turn imitated the Greek name for Lent, tessarakoste (fortieth), and that word was chosen by analogy to Pentecost (pentekoste), meaning “fiftieth day.” Pentecost originally referred to a traditional Jewish festival, and later, came to refer to the Christian celebration of the descent of the Holy Spirit 50 days after Easter.

The date of Ash Wednesday, and thus the start of Lent, depends on the date of Easter, which varies from year to year.

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