Starting on Ash Wednesday, you’ll most likely hear people in some faith circles talk about what they’ve given up for Lent or how they are practicing Lent this year. Perhaps you were raised with some sort of Lent practice. Or maybe you’re not familiar with the history and purpose of this time of year. Wherever you land, it’s a great time to discover the origins of Lent, the different ways people practice Lent, and why it can help you in your spiritual disciplines this season.

What is Lent?

Lent is a period of 40 days that focuses on prayer and fasting, and it is what the word itself means. It is a 40-day span because it commemorates the 40-day fast Jesus undertook in his time in the desert (Matthew 4:1-4). Many churches across the world celebrate Lent. Historians think it is likely that Lent was first observed during the early days of Christianity when the apostles were leading the church. However, the practice of Lent was not formalized until 325 AD during the First Council of Nicaea. The First Council of Nicaea was held to consolidate and validate various early church practices. Whether you choose to count Lent from the time of the apostles or after the First Council of Nicaea, the practice is ancient in the history of the church.

When is Lent?

While the season of Lent is usually at some point between February and March each year, the specific day it begins and ends varies, based on when Easter is going to be celebrated. Easter in the West is connected to the celebration of Passover, and the Hebrew calendar for the dates for Passover have to do with the lunar cycle. That’s why the actual day Easter is celebrated, and therefore the dates for Lent change each year.

From Ash Wednesday, which is the beginning of Lent, until Easter, there are 46 days. If you’re keeping up with the math, that means there are an additional six days over the 40 considered Lent. This is because Sundays are a respite from fasting. Additionally, Lent ends the Thursday before Good Friday. This means that Lent actually ends three days before Easter Sunday. 

How do I participate in Lent?

There are many approaches to the fasting that is considered central to Lent. Some people choose to fast from specific food and drink. It has been a long tradition to fast from meat, dairy, fish, eggs, and alcohol during Lent on Wednesdays and Fridays, and to change eating habits to include only one large meal per day during fast days, with smaller meals and snacks to sustain oneself. Today, Christians can choose to make their fast for the Lentin season in different ways. Some people choose to abstain from certain activities during the 40 days. Some decide to stay off social media or to avoid certain entertainments. While fasting during Lent has traditionally been for the purpose of repentance, many Christians today use the reminder of fasting on these days to remember the sacrifice of Jesus and the days that led up to his crucifixion on the cross.

Be sure to talk with your medical provider before undertaking any type of dietary fast or before removing certain foods from your diet. If you’re a Member of Altrua HealthShare, you also have access to DialCare, where you can consult with a medical provider online.

Why should I celebrate Lent?

While there is no biblical command to participate in Lent, it can be a time of spiritual focus and renewal for those who choose to take part. Some church communities encourage and celebrate Lent with specific services and rituals, such as special services on Ash Wednesday, devotionals shared to be used during the Lent season, and guidance on how to observe Lent. Other faith communities may not practice Lent or give a broader mention to the practice. 

Because of the timing of Lent, it can be a beautiful time to re-evaluate the practices and disciplines you intended to carry out at the beginning of the year. For many people, by the time the early spring rolls around, the habits and goals they had outlined for themselves at the beginning of the New Year have gotten sidelined by the end of January. By taking time in the days before Easter to reinstate disciplines and to take back up habits you want to establish, like daily time in the Bible, putting aside dietary items, spending more time in prayer, and monitoring other activities, you may find a renewed spiritual connection to God. It can also help lead to a more meaningful Easter Sunday for you as you spend the six weeks prior to Easter being reminded of the last days of Christ before his death on the cross and his resurrection.  

Lent begins this year, 2022, on Wednesday, March 2nd, and concludes on Thursday evening, April 14th. Lent is something you can observe privately, with decisions about what you will fast and pray about made between you and God. Or you can reach out to your church family or faith community for ideas, community, and accountability about how you would like to observe the season. Whatever your approach, may you find your love for God and your gratitude for the sacrifice of Jesus to be even more vital and more vibrant through the Lent season.

So we fasted and petitioned our God about this, and he answered our prayer.

Ezra 8:23, NIV

Julie Lyles Carr is a best-selling author, podcaster, and entrepreneur living in Austin, Texas, with her husband Mike Carr. They have eight kids, two unfriendly cats, and an antique dachshund.