What is Lent and why do we keep it?

(Photo: Unsplash/Ahna Ziegler)

Lent is a traditional period in the Church calendar which precedes Easter. This the story ...

Origin of the word Lent

The English word 'Lent' is not found in the Bible. It comes from the Anglo-Saxon word lencten which is the origin of the words Lenten and lengthen. Lenten was a historical word for the season of spring when the days lengthen. The modern term Lent is short for Lenten. Lenten is still used as an adjective, such as if people talk about a Lenten fast, or a Lenten devotional, or a Lenten course. In popular culture it is a time for giving something up. But what are it's biblical origins?

Origins of Lent

The Early Church focused on marking the crucifixion and the resurrection of Jesus through prayerrepentance and fasting, and this developed into 40 days of preparation before what we call Easter. By the fourth century AD, Lent had become normal practice. The idea of 40 days of self-discipline, was based on the time which Jesus spent in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1–11; Mark 1:13 and Luke 4:1–13). All three accounts say that Jesus fasted for 40 days.

The biblical significance of forty

The number forty is a significant biblical number. In Genesis, the flood was after 40 days and nights of rain (Genesis 7:12, 17). Moses and the Hebrews spent 40 years in the wilderness (Deuteronomy 29:5) after they escaped Egypt. Moses fasted for 40 days on Mount Sinai (Exodus 34:28). Jonah gave Nineveh 40 days to repent (Jonah 3:4).

In the New Testament Jesus spent 40 days fasting in the wilderness, and later Jesus spent 40 days after the resurrection before his ascension (Acts 1:3).

In fact in many languages, the word used for Lent comes from the Latin Quadragesima meaning fortieth including Y Grawys in Welsh, Cuaresma in Spanish, Carême in French, and Quaresima in Italian.

When does Lent start and finish?

When Lent starts depends on how the 40 days are counted. In the western Catholic and Protestant tradition Sundays are excluded from Lent, so Lent starts on Ash Wednesday, which in 2024 falls on 14th February, and ends on Holy Saturday. In the Eastern Orthodox tradition churches include Sundays in Great Lent meaning it ends on Palm Sunday. The last week of Lent is called Holy Week, which is the run up to Easter.


Fasting is a biblical principle. Many of the first Christians were from a Jewish background, and early Christians observed Jewish fast days. In the Gospel according to Matthew, Jesus gives teaching about fasting and says to his disciples "When you fast..." (Matthew 6:16-18), not if you fast. In German the word for Lent, Fastenzeit, means fasting time.

Fasting does not necessarily mean eating absolutely nothing. Historically, and still in some historical Christian traditions, fasting meant abstaining from meat (but not fish) and animal products during Lent. This led to the tradition of using leftover eggs, and fat, which were commonly forbidden during Lent.

These were made into pancakes before Lent started, hence Pancake Day. Orthodox Christians still often abstain from meat and dairy products during Lent, and there are often special fasting menus in restaurants and hotels during Lent in Orthodox countries. Catholic churches often give up playing the organ during Lent.

These days many people fast, or give up, a particular luxury or habit such as chocolate, alcohol, smoking, television or social media.

Lenten disciplines

Some Christians take up a Lenten spiritual discipline, such as reading a daily devotional, or following forty days of prayer for a particular issue. Some churches do a special Bible study series during Lent, and in some places local churches get together and do inter-church Bible studies, sometimes organised by the local Churches Together group.

Whilst Lent is not explicitly mentioned in the Bible, the principles of fasting, self-discipline and prayer are biblical, and many people find Lent a helpful practice to do alone, or with others.

Republished from Christian Today UK.