Lent is more than just an opportunity to give up a bad habit. For Roman Catholics, the Eastern Orthodox and some Protestants, it is instead one of the most significant times of the year, and is marked by traditions that in some cases stretch back centuries.
One tradition observed by all three branches of Christianity is fasting. For the Eastern Orthodox and the Protestants who celebrate Lent, the season is characterized by repentance. Fasting models repentance because it reminds fasters that they are dependent upon God for everything, including forgiveness from sin.
“It’s learning to think of yourself as a sinner who has no righteousness, no merit, nothing to hang on to but the mercy of Jesus,” philosophy professor Phil Cary, an Anglican, said.
Father Joseph Butts of Holy Ascension Eastern Orthodox Church agreed.
“The purpose of fasting is to remind us of the Scriptural teaching, ‘Man does not live by bread alone,’ he said in an email. “The needs of the body are nothing compared to the needs of the soul.”
The strictest fast requirements are found in the Eastern Orthodox Church, which requires a fast for the first three days of Lent and every Friday. They must also abstain from meat, dairy, fish, olive oil and wine, according to Butts.
Fasting for Protestants is much less stringent and varies widely. Some fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, others simply give up something like chocolate or television. Steven Harberts, associate pastor of pastoral care at Wayne Presbyterian Church, said his church is not fasting, but is encouraging people to do something extra instead.
According to the Catholic catechism, fasting is based on Christ’s 40 day-stay in the desert, where he resisted temptation. According to philosophy professor Randy Colton, a recent Catholic, fasting thus involves a similar rejection of sin.
In addition, however, the sacrifice of fasting is a very real participation in Christ’s life, according to several sources, including the Catholic catechism.
“Our sacrifices are perfected by being joined with Christ,” history professor Anthony Joseph, a Catholic, said. “It’s a participation in an eternal offering of the glorified Christ to the Father.”
Catholics fast on Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, and on Good Friday. They are also required to abstain from meat on Fridays, according to Joseph.
Protestants have no other uniform Lenten traditions, but Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism each observe their own Lenten traditions. One Catholic activity, also followed by Episcopalians according to Cary, is praying the Stations of the Cross, a set of 14 scenes gleaned both from Scripture and tradition, which stretch from Jesus’ condemnation to his crucifixion. These scenes are often represented by paintings on the walls of the church and include events such as Christ’s condemnation, his taking up of the cross, and his three falls, according to Joseph.
Participants pray the Stations of the Cross by stopping at each station to offer a prayer or meditation on that stage in Christ’s crucifixion. Although these stations are often prayed privately during the year, public processions usually occur during Lent, according to Joseph.
The purpose of praying the Stations, according to Colton, is again to enter into Jesus’ life.
“They fill our minds and imaginations with the life and story of Christ,” he said. “It’s about finding a way to encounter Christ.”
The Eastern Orthodox Lenten traditions consist almost solely of fasting until Holy Week, when they have 40 hours of services, according to history professor Gary Jenkins. Their Lent begins, however, with the traditional service of forgiveness vespers.
Because the Eastern Orthodox Church follows a different calendar from Protestants and Catholics, its Lent begins and ends later. Forgiveness vespers this year occurred March 5, according to Jenkins. Ash Wednesday was March 1.
Forgiveness vespers is an hour and a half long ceremony during which each member of the church forgives every other member, confesses sin and receives forgiveness from each member.
The idea, according to Jenkins, is to prepare for the journey of repentance and prayer that is Lent.
“At Lent, we are to exercise ourselves in prayers,” he said. “Jesus said that to do so, we need to forgive those who have offended us, and we need to confess that we’ve sinned against each other.”
For all three branches of Christianity, Lent culminates in Easter and the celebration of Christ’s resurrection. And for all three branches, this is what Lent points to.
“Lent is a preparation to meeting God,” Jenkins said. “The goal is always life in Christ.”