Lent is a liturgical season of penitence, prayer, fasting, almsgiving and doing good works in Jesus’ name. The 40-day season of Lent begins this year on March 5, Ash Wednesday, and ends with the celebration of the Paschal Mystery (the Easter Triduum). During Lent, Catholics are called to reflect on the forty days Jesus spent fasting and praying in the desert and to renew their basptismal commitments to turn away from sin and turn toward a life in Christ.
As the Lenten season gets underway, Catholics throughout the diocese will be asked over and over from well-meaning family, friends, business associates, neighbors and even strangers one continuous question: Why? Why are ashes given out? Why are Fridays “meatless” during Lent? Why is Lent considered 40 days when it actually works out to 46 days? Why do Catholics “give up” something during Lent?
Here, the Catholic Sun presents a comprehensive list of questions and answers about Lent, based on material provided by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Q: Why is the Lenten season 40 days long?
A: The number 40 has a strong biblical foundation throughout Scripture. Noah built the ark for a flood that lasted 40 days and 40 nights. Moses fasted on Mt. Sinai for 40 days. The Israelites wandered the desert for 40 years and Jesus went into the desert to fast for 40 days. Anecdotally, women carry a child to term in approximately 40 weeks, which results in birth or a new beginning. The 40 days from Ash Wednesday to Holy Saturday end with a new beginning: Easter Sunday, the resurrection of Christ.
Q: If the days of the season are counted from Ash Wednesday through Holy Saturday, why is Lent 40 days long and not 46 days?
A: Christ rose from the dead on Easter Sunday, which makes it a day of joy and celebration and not fasting and abstinence. If all Sundays are excluded during the Lenten season as days to celebrate the resurrection of Christ, the number of days equals 40, not 46.
Q: Why do Catholics receive ashes on their foreheads on Ash Wednesday?
A: The act of placing ashes on the forehead in the sign of the cross is based in Old Testament scripture found in Daniel 9:3: “I turned to the Lord God, to seek help, in prayer and petition with fasting, sackcloth, and ashes.” The ashes are a reminder to Catholics to repent for their sins, especially during the season of Lent, and ask for forgiveness. The ashes also remind us of God’s eternal love for His children and proof that even when a body dies and returns to dust, God’s love is so great the soul will continue to live forever.
Q: Why do Catholics give up things for Lent, such as candy, television or snack foods?
A: It’s not actually what is being given up that is important, but the act of sacrifice itself that means a great deal to God. Lent is a time of reflecting on sin and an opportunity for apologizing. When people sacrifice something they enjoy during Lent, it indicates they are willing to fight against temptation and live a life in Christ. This very act strengthens their love for Jesus.
Q: If Sundays are not counted in the 40 days of Lent, does that mean whatever was given up for Lent can still be enjoyed on Sundays?
A: It comes down to a matter of individual conscience and self-discipline. Lent is a season. If a person gives up something during the season of Lent as a sacrifice and a way to strengthen his or her love to Jesus, it makes sense that the intent is to give it up for the entire duration of Lent and not a self-determined amount of days or time.
Q: Who should fast and abstain from eating meat during Lent?
A: All Catholics who have completed their 14th year are to abstain from eating meat on Ash Wednesday, Good Friday and every Friday during Lent.
Catholics in good health, from the completion of their 18th year to the beginning of their 60th year, are to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday (continuing the fast until the Easter Vigil when possible). When fasting, one full meal is permitted, as are two small meals not to equal a full meal. Liquids are allowed at any time during the fast.
Children, physically and mentally challenged individuals, pregnant and nursing women, and those suffering from chronic illness such as diabetes or Parkinson’s are excluded from fasting.
Q: Why do Catholics abstain from eating meat on Fridays during Lent?
A: Abstaining from meat on Fridays or during the Lenten season is done in remembrance of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. By refraining from eating meat, Catholics are reminded in this small act of Christ’s tremendous sacrifice of love.
Q: Why do Catholics fast on Holy Days?
A: Fasting can be difficult, but the act of fasting is considered a gift to God and is a beautiful way to show a person’s inner desire to obey God and unite with all those within the faith, especially the poor. Christ fasted and prayed in the desert, and when a Catholic fasts and prays he or she is showing unity with Christ. Fasting also requires great self-discipline and shows dependence on God, not on the supplies and resources of the world.
Q: Is there some importance to eating fish on Fridays or will anything meatless do?
A: Whether it’s saltwater or fresh, shellfish or filet, fish are not categorized as being derived from a land animal, such as pork, chicken, beef or lamb. Fish is also equated with the miracle of the loaves and fishes, and as a meal fish is considered simple fare. Anything meatless, however, is acceptable.
Q: Does eating soup made from an animal stock or a sauce flavored with meat count as eating meat?
A: No. Foods such as chicken broth, consommé, items flavored with meat, gravies and sauces as well as condiments or seasonings made from meat, are technically not forbidden. However, it depends on a person’s moral discipline whether or not he or she will choose to eliminate all animal-derived products.
Q: In addition to prayer, fasting and giving up something for Lent, what else should be done during the season?
A: Lent is a time to work on renewing the baptismal commitment and personal discipline. Instead of just giving up something, a person should also give alms and do good works to help others.
Amy Fleming, coordinator for the Justice & Peace Resource Center of Catholic Charities of Broome County, believes Lent is a great time “focus on doing more. I have worked for many years on issues focusing on the common good and I am always happy to see Lent come.”
Q: What is the importance of the palms on Palm Sunday and why do people bring them home?
A: The reason for the palm goes back to the biblical story of Palm Sunday. It was a tradition to spread palms before a king when he processed into a city. When the people heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem, they took up palm branches and went out to greet him, considering him the one true King. One week later, the same people who celebrated him with palms demanded he be crucified. Today palms are brought into the home on Palm Sunday to remind Catholics of Christ’s great humility and decision to take up the cross, even when those he loved the most turned their backs on him.
Q: Why is it important to observe Good Friday?
A: On Calvary’s hillside at 3 p.m. on a Friday, Jesus died on the cross for the sins of all mankind. From that point forward, Christians observed this time on Good Friday as an opportunity to reflect on Christ’s tremendous sacrifice and continuous love and mercy.
For more Lenten resources, visit the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops website at www.usccb.org.
The Sun thanks Father Christopher Seibt for his contributions to this story.