It’s that time of year again. Insects are emerging, daffodils are poking up from the ground, birds are chirping, the weather is getting warmer, the sun is shining more happily — and Christians around the world are about to observe multiple weeks of fasting, repentance, prayer, and being reminded of their death in preparation for the yearly celebration of Christ’s suffering, death, and resurrection. This liturgical, annual season is known across the traditions as “Lent.”
In this article, I’ll lay out how the different traditions of Christianity, marked out loosely as evangelical Protestant, mainline Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox, observe the season of Lent. I’ll talk about their different fasts, requirements, and general atmospheres around Lent. But before I do that, I want to make it clear that each strain of Christians make it clear, to varying degrees, that the spirit of a fast is more important than following the rules of the fast, and that a heart of repentance and turning to Christ is the most important part of the season. You’ll encounter individuals, pastors, or maybe whole churches that stringently adhere to the letter of the “law” when it comes to Lenten fasts, but by and large, most will in some way note that God cares more about rending our hearts to Her than She does us rending our garments (Joel 2:13). God sees the heart. Additionally, it should be noted that good pastors generally encourage adaptation of the fasts in their denominations or traditions for pregnant people, the chronically ill, and those who deal with eating disorders (and others as needed) — because, as I said, God cares more about our hearts than about following rules.
For all four Christians streams, Lent is forty days long. This represents the forty days that Jesus of Nazareth spent fasting in the wilderness, as recorded in Matthew 4. Lent ends on Holy or Maundy Thursday of Holy Week, which is the liturgical day that observes Christ’s Last Supper and betrayal. Another way of saying this: Lent ends at the beginning of the Holy Triduum (Latin derivative meaning “three days”) which consists of Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday (Easter vigil). Holy Week begins on Palm Sunday, the Sunday a week before Easter, but it is still contained by Lent. Lent is approximately six weeks long, but the forty-day measurement is more meaningful because of its connection to Christ.
In the Western churches (Protestant and Roman Catholic), Lent begins on Wednesday, March 2, on the day called Ash Wednesday. Attendants to Ash Wednesday services will often receive interment of ashes (made from last year’s palms from Palm Sunday) in the shape of a cross on their foreheads, to remind them that they are dust, and to dust they shall return (Genesis 3). This day somewhat morbidly begins the remembrance of one’s mortality that they’re called to during the season of Lent.
In the Protestant traditions, dietary fasts are not required and are not strict. Generally, a Protestant observing Lent is encouraged to discern what’s best for themselves individually when choosing what to fast from or what devotion to add to their routine. For example, a small child might choose to fast from candy, but one of their parents may choose to add reading the Bible for ten minutes every day before bed to their daily schedule in lieu of an abstinence. A Protestant congregation by the leadership of their pastor may collectively decide to fast from the same things together, for mutual support.
Roman Catholics tend to do similar individual abstinences/additions, but ecclesially, they’re required to fast from meat and poultry every Friday during the season as an ongoing remembrance of Good Friday, and go to confession at least once during the forty days. They also have the option of limiting the amount of meals they consume every day: one full meal, and two small snacks that together don’t exceed the amount of a full meal. A few also choose to stop eating before they are satisfied when they sit down to their daily meal.
In the Eastern Orthodox traditions, Lent begins this year on March 15, with their Easter celebration, called Pascha, on May 2. The Orthodox also observe a week of partial fasting, called cheesefare, before Lent proper begins. Their fast consists of abstinence from meat, poultry, fish (some shellfish allowed), dairy, olive oil, and wine. Cheesefare is the same but with dairy allowed. Their proper Lenten fast is essentially going vegan, with the additional abstinences from olive oil and wine.