What is Lent all about?

Lent is the 40 days which comes before Easter in the Christian calendar. Beginning on Ash Wednesday, Lent is a season of reflection and preparation before the celebrations of Easter. By observing the 40 days of Lent, Christians echo Jesus Christ's sacrifice and withdrawal into the desert for 40 days. Lent is marked by fasting, both from food and festivities.

Whereas Easter celebrates the resurrection of Jesus after his death on the cross, Lent recalls the events leading up to and including Jesus' crucifixion by Rome in Jerusalem.

In the 21st century we use Lent as a time for prayer and penance. Only a small number of people today fast for the whole of Lent, although it is good maintain the practice on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. It is more common these days for christians to give up a particular vice such as favourite foods, chocolate or smoking. Whatever the sacrifice it is a reflection of Jesus' deprivation in the wilderness and a test of self-discipline.

Why 40 days?

40 is a significant number in Jewish-Christian scripture:

               In Genesis, the flood which destroyed the earth was brought about by 40 days and nights of rain.

               The Hebrews spent 40 years in the wilderness before reaching the land promised to them by God.

               Moses fasted for 40 days before receiving the ten commandments on Mount Sinai.

               Jesus spent 40 days fasting in the wilderness in preparation for his ministry.

We regard Jesus' time in the wilderness as the key event for the duration of Lent.

Why is it called Lent?

Lent is an old English word meaning 'lengthen'. Lent is observed in spring, when the days begin to get longer.

The colour purple

Purple is the symbolic colour used in church throughout Lent, for drapes and altar frontals.

Purple is used for two reasons: firstly because it is associated with mourning and so anticipates the pain and suffering of the crucifixion, and secondly because purple is the colour associated with royalty, and celebrates Christ's resurrection and sovereignty.

The last week of Lent is called Holy Week.

Shrove Tuesday

It may seem strange but we start with Pancake day.  Shrove Tuesday is the day before Lent starts: the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. It's a day of penitence, to clean the soul, and a day of celebration as the last chance to feast before Lent begins.  Shrove Tuesday is sometimes called Pancake Day after the fried batter recipe traditionally eaten on this day.  But there's more to Shrove Tuesday than pigging out on pancakes or taking part in a pancake race. The pancakes themselves are part of an ancient custom with deeply religious roots.  The need to eat the fats gave rise to the French name Mardi Gras ('Fat Tuesday").

Giving up foods: but not wasting them

During Lent there are many foods that some Christians - historically and today - would not eat: foods such as meat and fish, fats, eggs, and milky foods.

So that no food was wasted, families would have a feast on the shriving Tuesday, and eat up all the foods that wouldn't last the forty days of Lent without going off.


Shrove Tuesday gets its name from the ritual of shriving that Christians used to undergo in the past. In shriving, a person confesses their sins and receives absolution for them.  When a person receives absolution for their sins, they are forgiven for them and released from the guilt and pain that they have caused them, the absolution is pronounced by a priest.

This tradition is very old. Over 1000 years ago a monk wrote in the Anglo-Saxon Ecclesiastical Institutes:  In the week immediately before Lent everyone shall go to his confessor and confess his deeds and the confessor shall so shrive him.

Ash Wednesday Services

We hold a special service at which worshippers are marked with ashes as a symbol of death and sorrow for sin.  The service draws on the ancient Biblical traditions of covering one's head with ashes, wearing sackcloth, and fasting.

The mark of ashes

In Ash Wednesday services churchgoers are marked on the forehead with a cross of ashes as a sign of penitence and mortality.  The use of ashes, made by burning palm crosses from the previous Palm Sunday, is very symbolic.

God our Father, you create us from the dust of the earth.

Grant that these ashes may be for us a sign of our penitence, and a symbol of our mortality.

Traditional Ash Wednesday prayer

The priest marks each worshipper on the forehead, and says "remember you are dust and unto dust you shall return", or a similar phrase based on God's sentence on Adam in Genesis 3:19.  And follows it by saying "Turn away from sin and believe the gospel".

Keeping the mark

We leave with the mark still on their forehead so that we carry the sign of the cross out into the world.

Symbolism of the ashes

The marking of their forehead with a cross made of ashes reminds each person that:

               Death comes to everyone

               They should be sad for their sins

               They must change themselves for the better

               God made the first human being by breathing life into dust, and without God, human beings are nothing    more than dust and ashes.

The shape of the mark and the words used are symbolic in other ways:

               The cross is a reminder of the mark of the cross made at baptism

               The phrase often used when the ashes are administered reminds Christians of the doctrine of original sin

               The cross of ashes may symbolise the way Christ's sacrifice on the cross as atonement for sin replaces the Old Testament tradition of making burnt offerings to atone for sin

Where the ashes come from

The ashes used on Ash Wednesday are made by burning the palm crosses that were blessed on the previous year's Palm Sunday.

From Palm Sunday to Ash Wednesday

Palm Sunday celebrates Jesus's triumphant entry into Jerusalem, so when the crosses used in the Palm Sunday service are converted to ashes, the worshippers are reminded that defeat and crucifixion swiftly followed triumph.

But using the ashes to mark the cross on the believer's forehead symbolises that through Christ's death and resurrection, all Christians can be free from sin.


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