Lent in the Catholic Church


What is Lent?

The season of Lent is a Catholic liturgical season consisting of forty days of fasting, prayer, and penitence beginning at Ash Wednesday and concluding at sundown on Holy Thursday. The official liturgical color for the season of Lent is violet. Lent begins on February 18, 2015.

The observance of Lent is related to the celebration of Easter. In the first three centuries of the Christian era, most Christians prepared for Easter by fasting and praying for three days. In some places this was extended to the entire week before Easter (now known as “Holy Week”). There is evidence that in Rome, the length of preparation was three weeks.

The word derives from the Middle English word lenten, meaning springtime – the time of lengthening days. There is biblical support for doing penance, but the season of Lent, like all Catholic liturgical seasons, developed over time. In its early three-week form, Lent was the period of intense spiritual and liturgical preparation for catechumens before they were baptized at Easter. Many members of the community imitated this time of preparation with the catechumens.

By the fourth century (when Christianity was legalized) Lent had developed into its current length of forty days, the length of the fast and temptation of Jesus in the desert (cf. Luke 4:1-13). Recently, research has suggested that the development of Lent was also influenced by the forty-day span of fasting practiced by many in the early Church (especially monks). This fast, beginning right after Epiphany (January 6th) stressed prayer and penance. Once most people were Christian and baptized as infants, Lent lost the connection to the preparation of catechumens and the themes of repentance and fasting became dominant.

When does Lent begin?

Traditionally, Lent begins on Ash Wednesday and ends at sundown on Holy Thursday. Since this is more than forty days, some contend that Sundays are not counted and that Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday are counted instead. Others say that it begins on the first Sunday after Ash Wednesday. No one is exactly sure how Ash Wednesday became the first day of Lent.

Many Catholics were taught as children to “give up something” for Lent. The sacrifices in Lent are really penance, in the same spirit as the Ninehvites that repented at the preaching of Jonah. Throughout our history, Christians have found prayer, fasting, and almsgiving to be an important part of repentance and renewal. Many Catholics now add something during Lent rather than giving up something, either to address personal habits that need work or to add some outreach to others in need.

It is not necessary to “give up something” but it would be a tragedy to do nothing.

Do Sundays count as a part of Lent?

Ash Wednesday

It is impossible to determine when the seventh Wednesday before Easter was designated as the beginning of the preparation period before Easter. It does date from at least the fourth century. During that century, penitents looking for forgiveness and re-entry into the community would dress in sackcloth and sprinkle ashes to show their repentance. This custom certainly predates Christianity as can be seen by references in the Hebrew Scriptures (cf. Esther 4:2-3; Danie19:3; Jonah 3:6) and Christian Bible (cf. Matthew 11:21).

There is no doubt that the custom of distributing ashes to everyone on Ash Wednesday came from imitation of the practice of wearing ashes by public penitents. As Lent increasingly focused on the themes of repentance and renewal, Christians sensed their own need for repentance. The practice of distribution of ashes to all members of the community is mentioned in official documents of 1091 (Cf. Synod of Benventum, 1091 Manse, XX, 739) although nearly a hundred years earlier it is already assumed in a homily of the period.

Lenten Regulations

The Catholic Church, in an attempt to help Catholics do at least a minimum during Lent, asks all Catholics to fast and abstain from meat on certain days. Fasting means to limit food to one full meal a day with the possibility of two smaller meals (not adding up to a full meal) as needed. Abstinence means not eating meat, although fish is allowed. Catholics are asked to observe all days of fasting and abstience which is one of the precepts of the Church.

Catholics 14 years of age or older are to abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday and all the Fridays of Lent. Catholics

between the ages of 14 and 59 are also to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. If one’s work or health make it inadvisable to fast or abstain from meat, they are not obligated to do so.

At one time, people gave up all dairy products and meat during all of the Lenten season. Since chickens continue to produce eggs and cows milk, the custom developed to make the milk into cheese and color the eggs so that when Easter arrived, no food would be wasted.

Other Definitions Concerning Lent

Originally a celebration just before Lent. Carnival is Latin for “farewell to meat.”
Laetare Sunday
The fourth Sunday of Lent, which marks the halfway point, celebrated with rose vestments instead of the usual violet.
Maundy Thursday
An ancient English name for Holy Thursday. It comes from the Latin, Mandatum novum da nobis (“I give you a new commandment,” John 13:34) that began the ancient foot-washing ceremony.
Palm Sunday
The celebration of Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem before he was arrested. In Scripture, people placed palm branches on the road as Jesus road on a donkey into Jerusalem.
Passion Sunday
The Sunday before Easter (also called “Palm Sunday”) in which the passion of the Lord (the story of Jesus’ arrest and death) is traditionally read.
Spy Wednesday
A name for the Wednesday of Holy Week that alludes to Judas agreeing with the Sanhedrin to betray Jesus.
The “Great Three Days” -the three-part celebration beginning with the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday, continuing with The Celebration of the Lord’s Passion on Good Friday, and concluding with the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday.


  1. Jeena says

    What age would be appropriate to start Fasting? Some people say babies fast and others say you should be atleast 18? So I am confused. Are both acceptable?

    • KD says

      It’s used as a substitute for meat but the tradition actually calls for no meat, chicken or fish so that we may humble ourselves by eating vegetables, rice or potatoes like the poor did in the time of Jesus’ life and death. That was my understanding the sacrifice was for because if we give up meat yet we still eat fish we are enjoying it at a seafood restaurant and that isn’t necessarily a sacrifice.

      • shansel says

        It depends on which rules you are following. If you follow traditional rules, there are numerous days thru out lent that you should abstain from meat and/or only have meat once a day. If you follow novus or do rules, its just ash Wednesday and every Friday during Lent.

  2. APA says

    John 18:36 says
    “Jesus answered, My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews: but now is my kingdom not from hence.”

    Jesus clearly declared that his kingdom is not belong to this world. But those who rule this world in the name of Jesus falsely will posses this earth and its grave.

    “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Matthew 6:21

    At last even that grave(Hades) goes to lake of fire for eternal suffering.
    “Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire.” Revelation 20:14

  3. APA says

    1 Timothy 4:1-9
    New Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition (NRSVCE)

    False Asceticism
    “Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will renounce the faith by paying attention to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, through the hypocrisy of liars whose consciences are seared with a hot iron. They forbid marriage and demand abstinence from foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected, provided it is received with thanksgiving; for it is sanctified by God’s word and by prayer.
    If you put these instructions before the brothers and sisters, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, nourished on the words of the faith and of the sound teaching that you have followed. Have nothing to do with profane myths and old wives’ tales. Train yourself in godliness, for, while physical training is of some value, godliness is valuable in every way, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come. The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance. For to this end we toil and struggle, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe.”

  4. K says

    Hi! I am researching the history behind abstaining from meat on Good Friday, as in when it began and why, and also the reason for why fish is allowed. I understand the regulations, but would like to study the history behind it, could you please help me. Thank you!

    • Danielle says

      It would be beneficial to look for books in the sections of the library or book store for Psychology and Religion, or speak with a Professor, if possible, at a college who teaches Religion. Good luck.

  5. Clement says

    Hi Jon,

    Please I need to know! Can I eat eggs during Lent? Even on ash wednesday and good friday, holy thursday! Thanks

      • Danielle says

        Yes, apparently you can. Everyone choses which “rules” to go by, if eggs are what you want to give up, so be it. I was always taught to give up one thing that would be difficult to give up. Apparently, it is meat that is to be given up on high holy days, Ash Wednesday, each Friday (which fish is typically eaten on Fridays.). If eggs are what you want to give up and it does not affect your health do so.
        Give up what you want.

  6. romana says

    Hi Jon, a lot of people say chicken is like fish that you can eat chicken on Friday’s. I’m confused!-! Also is it a must to give something up for lent?

    • says

      I understand chicken to be the same as beef as far as Lenten abstinence is concerned. No lamb, beef, pork, poultry, etc. on Fridays in Lent. Giving up something is a sacrifice and not completely necessary although it fits the theme of reducing bodily desires to focus more closely on Jesus.

  7. Melani Burgion says

    Hi Jon, thanks for the great insight! I’m thinking about converting, but realize there’s a lot of work to do (i.e. RCIA classes, finding a sponsor, etc.) As for lent, I’m still not clear on the purpose other than giving things up. Found some more information in this article: http://frugalandthriving.com.au/2012/what-is-lent-and-what-does-it-mean-to-you/ but still looking for a deeper meaning. Are there any books/articles that you would recommend that I look at? Thanks for your help – really appreciate it!

  8. Noddy says

    my first real boyfriend when i was in high school (a long time ago) was catholic. he was living with my friend Chuck’s family and I had no idea about lent and I found out my then boyfriend decided for lent, he would sacrifice talking to me on the phone. LOL. At the time I was furious, since it felt like punishment. going from talking every day to a 40 day period without it had me pretty gutted, also the fact that he made that decision without even talk g to me about it.

    on one hand it’s sort of a compliment, but I felt disrespected, as I do not follow the faith and I never would have made that decision if I did.

    the topic of lent just came up with my family today so i was reminded of this, I am curious what other folks think of that decision, if it was even fair to involve someone else without their consent. personally I still think, 20 years later, that it was rude.

    • M.D.VINCENT says

      Dear Noddy,
      The Lenten spirit is, to deny some pleasures to improve the spiritual health and strength.
      Any sacrifice in this spirit without hurting others is welcome. However your boy friend should have educated you first about lent, about the need for sacrifices in lent purely for spiritual health and strength and then gently stopped talking to you so that you might have taken it in right spirit, co-operating with his decision. I am sorry on behalf of your boy friend. I am sure he too will tender his apologizes once he notices that you are hut. However the positive side of the picture is that you can be proud of your man as you learn that he is doing something good to improve his spiritual life [ in contrast to those who indulge in harmful habits] and to build better relationship with God. This exercise in turn will help to deepen the relationship between both of you. Hence take it light and encourage him appreciating his decision. God bless both of you.
      +Uncle Vin

  9. Brian says

    I’m confused: Is Lent over on Holy Thursday, but you follow the Lenten sacrifice you made until sunset on Holy Saturday because the Triduum is a penitential time? I always thought Lent was over on Easter Sunday, but now I am being told it is over on Wednesday of Holy Week? Please help.

      • Tony says

        If Lent ends on Holy Thursday you cannot reach the “40 days of Lent in the liturgical year. Lent ends Holy Saturday, before the Easter Vigil. This Year(2014) Lent Starts Ash Wednesday (March 5th and Ends Easter Sunday the 20th (technically The Evening of Sat. April 19th ) Minus the 6 Sundays which are not included in Lent(each one a little Easter unto themselves) this equals 40day. I know the “Easter Triduum” Starts the evening of Holy Thrusday and interestingly enough ends Easter evening (according to THE LITURGICAL YEAR
        Congregation for Divine Worship – GENERAL NORMS FOR THE LITURGICAL YEAR AND THE CALENDAR – 14 FEBRUARY 1969 as follows………
        19.) The Easter triduum begins with the evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper, reaches its high point in the Easter Vigil, and closes with evening prayer on Easter Sunday.20. On Good Friday [9] and, if possible, also on Holy Saturday until the Easter Vigil, [10] the Easter fast is observed everywhere.

  10. Victor says

    Good Morning Jon, I was born and raised Catholic. We practice Lent every year. Get our ashes on Ash Wednesday. And I don’t eat or drink anything until 8:00 p.m. On Ash Wednesday or Good Friday. And I don’t meat on those days or any friday during lent. But last friday I ate tartar sauce with my fish, a little cheese dip and cole slaw. I’m confused and feel kinda bad because I don’t remember if food products made with dairy and or eggs. Can be eaten on Lent fridays. I can’t seem to get the right answer online. Some Catholic websites and forums say eating food products made with dairy and or eggs can be eaten on Lent Fridays cause it’s not the flesh of the animals. But other sites say we can’t eat dairy and egg products during fridays on lent. I’m not sure what to do now? Thanks

  11. [email protected] says

    Why is lent not in the bible

  12. Karen says

    Good morning Jon,
    My boyfriend was born and raised Catholic. His mother is a huge catholic beliver. When his mom is home for the summer months he goes to church sometimes. His daughter was born and raised catholic also. She is getting married next year but not in a church. My boyfriends mom is very upset about this but my boyfriend doesnt feel what the big deal is. I told him thats because his mom has true beliefs and i feel he doesnt. Now its ‘lent’ and he told me no red meat. From what i read its no meat except fish. He told me if we ever get married i need to be a part of the catholic church. I dont have an issue with that but i do have an issue being asked to join the church when he doesnt truly follow the catholic religion. Ive been surrounded by people all my life who call themselves ‘Catholics’ but i feel they are hipacrits. They never go to church. Please give me your input. Im confused on how to feel about getting involved in the catholic church when i will have no support at home.

    • J Thompson says

      Karen, as Mother Angelica used to reply when people told her they couldn’t come to the Catholic Church because they were all hypoprites.. “One more hypocrite won’t huirt”.

      In other words, we’re all “hypocrites” or sinners, nobody is perfect and so you might as well be in the only Church that Christ founded.

  13. Kiana says

    My name is Kiana and my mom made me look up Lent and catholicism and this article made it easier for me to understand especially the meanings behind w,the names of the different days. Thankyou and godbless. Happy Lent!

  14. Maddalena says

    I am not sure how things changed over the years regarding Lent. But we fast and adhere only to a vegan diet. It was on Good Friday where we eat fish and Easter Sunday lamb was our first meat meal since Shrove Tuesday known as martedì grasso known as mardi gras here or carnevale. Are there different levels of Catholic Lent? I grew up in Italy from a more traditional background and this was how we always practised Lent and I continue this tradition today.

    • says

      Hi Maddalena. I think that this is one way that culture can influence the faith. This website is written from my experiences as a United States Catholic where some of the traditions surrounding Lent are different. In the Midwest, for instance, it is a big deal to go out for a fish fry on Fridays, especially in Lent. We have no carnevale culturally. Your tradition is beautiful. God Bless.

  15. roseann says

    jon i would like to know if crackers and biscuits are the same as cookies
    i was thinking of giving up cookies, cake and candy for lent
    do you consider biscuits and crackers to be the same as bakery or packaged cookies like oreos , choc
    chips etc..

  16. clare says

    the catholic church restricts eating of meat on ash Wednesday and good Friday. Any other type of fasting and abstinence can be done during the other days of lent

  17. Giselle DiSantis says

    Good morning, Jon.

    I would like to know if it is accepted to eat meat on the Saturday before Passion Sunday.

    Giselle DiSantis

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