What Is Lent and Why Is It Celebrated?

If you’re not sure what this pre-Easter period is all about, we have the answers you’re looking for—as well as when Lent will be observed in 2022.

With so many fun Easter traditions—like decorating Easter eggs, munching on jelly beans from your Easter basket, and gathering with family on the big day—it’s easy to see why Easter is such a popular holiday. But it’s also an incredibly important time for Christians, as are the holy days leading up to it. Holy Week, which is the week before Easter, starts with Palm Sunday and also includes Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday. But before all that is the period known as Lent. What is Lent, exactly? At its core, it’s a solemn season focused on faith and sacrifice, but there’s so much more to know about its history, symbolism, and rules.

While traditions vary depending on different branches of Christianity, Lent is observed by Catholic, Orthodox, and some Protestant believers. Even within those larger groupings, there’s a lot of wiggle room. After all, there are more than 15 different denominations just in Protestantism! But regardless of the specifics, all Christians share the same basic beliefs surrounding the life and teachings of Jesus, during Lent and beyond.

So, what is Lent?

Lent is the 40-day period preceding Easter that focuses on remembering the death and resurrection of Jesus. Sundays aren’t included, but it’s actually 46 days if you count them. This six-week period includes a renewed perspective on baptism, which often means a recommitment of faith. During Lent, people often fast or give up something special to them (often a food indulgence), which is supposed to prepare their hearts and minds for Easter.

A similar time of fasting and prayer is seen in the Gospel of Matthew in the New Testament when Satan tempted Jesus in the wilderness for 40 days. Each “temptation” was a test of Jesus’ faith, an effort to get him to doubt that he was really the son of God or to renounce his devotion in exchange for wealth and glory. But instead of succumbing to temptation, Jesus answered Satan each time by quoting Scripture from the Old Testament. As the story goes, the Devil then left, and the angels surrounded Jesus as he began preparing for his ministry.

That’s where the Lenten fast comes in. It hearkens back to these ideas of temptation and sacrifice, and its goal is to help Christians achieve a deeper understanding of their faith. Instead of a 40-day fast, however, Christians might engage in shorter fasts or abstain from things they particularly love, like soda, alcohol, desserts, or social media. When they feel hungry or miss the thing they’re abstaining from, they should acknowledge that and turn to prayer and the Bible. Speaking of which, these inspiring Bible quotes can help renew your faith.

When is Lent in 2022?

Lent always begins on Ash Wednesday, which falls on March 2 this year. On that day, you will notice many people walking around with ashes in the shape of a cross on their foreheads; that mark symbolizes death and repentance. Many churches hold an Ash Wednesday service, during which the priest or pastor will dip a finger into ashes and mark a cross on each congregant’s forehead, saying, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” A second admonition offers a reminder to stay on the right path: “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.”

When does Lent end?

The last day of Lent varies because Christian denominations calculate Lent differently. Since 1970, Roman Catholics have celebrated the last day of Lent on Maundy Thursday, the Thursday before Easter; in 2022 it falls on April 14. But in many Protestant and Western Orthodox churches, Lent ends on Holy Saturday, which is April 16 this year.

Symbolically, the end of Lent is the day Jesus celebrated his final Passover, the day before Jesus was crucified (which was the Thursday before Good Friday). During this time, Jesus ate the Last Supper with his disciples, washed their feet, and gave them a mandate to love one another. This is where the word maundy comes from—it’s an abbreviated form of mandatum in Latin, which means command. Many churches offer a Maundy Thursday service, during which their congregants can take communion and observe or take part in a foot-washing ceremony.

Why does Lent fall on different dates each year?

Lent is different each year because it depends on the date of Easter, which can occur anytime between March 22 and April 25. Which brings us to this question: Why is Easter on a different Sunday every year? Easter is always on the first Sunday after the Paschal full moon, or the first full moon after the spring equinox. This year, the spring equinox falls on Sunday, March 20, with the first full moon occurring on Saturday, April 16. That’s why Easter lands on April 17 this year.

Since the date of Easter varies every year, the religious observances of Holy Week do as well, including Ash Wednesday, which kicks off the Lenten season 46 days before Easter Sunday. An important note: These observances apply to the Western Christian traditions and are based on the Gregorian calendar, though the Eastern traditions (which include the Greek Orthodox and Russian Orthodox branches) use the Julian calendar and practice “Great Lent,” which starts on March 7 this year.

How does Lent relate to Easter?

The purpose of Lent is to prepare Christians for Easter; to pray and focus on Scriptures related to the “good news” of Jesus’ resurrection. Practicing the traditions of Lent and Holy Week can help them receive forgiveness for their sins and experience God’s love and mercy. A popular Bible passage for Easter focuses on communion, which is the practice of taking the bread, giving thanks, and breaking it, followed by drinking a sip of wine as a new covenant of Jesus’ blood. The bread represents Jesus’ broken body on the cross, and “the cup” represents his blood poured out for humanity to pay for the sins of the people.

Why does Lent last for 40 days?

As mentioned above, the Lenten fast reflects Jesus’ 40 days of temptation in the wilderness, but throughout the Bible, the number 40 typically reflects a time of testing or trial. In the Old Testament, the number 40 is referenced numerous times—for example, Moses spends 40 days with God on Mount Sinai, God sends 40 days and 40 nights of rain during the flood (yep, that’s the Noah’s Ark story), and Elijah travels for 40 days to get to Mount Horeb, known as the Mountain of God. We could go on (there are more examples), but you get the idea!

What are the rules for Lent?

The rules vary depending on the denomination of Christianity. But, in general, it’s about fasting for some portion of Lent (if your health allows) or abstaining from something you normally enjoy in order to reflect on Jesus’ sacrifice. Some people use this time to get their life back on track, giving up cigarettes or alcohol in order to focus more on their spiritual health.

For many Catholics, it also means an obligatory day of fasting on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday (one regular meal and two half-portion meals, excluding meat), as well as abstaining from meat on all Lenten Fridays. Why? It’s all about symbolism. Since Friday represents the day of Jesus’ death, the idea is to abstain from eating warm-blooded animals in order to reflect on the body of Christ and the ultimate sacrifice he made. You’ll notice many restaurants offering fish instead of meat on Fridays during Lent for this reason. For the early church of the ancient Mediterranean world, eating fish during Lent was considered acceptable because fish are cold-blooded.

For some Orthodox believers, the first week of Lent is the most strict: The first three days require a complete fast from all foods, though some allow a small amount of food after sunset. For many Protestant denominations, fasting during Lent is optional, though the Episcopal church encourages fasting on Ash Wednesday and on Good Friday. Now that you know what Lent is all about, check out these Happy Easter quotes that inspire hope.

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Dianne Bright
Dianne Bright is a southern California-based writer and a regular contributor with RD.com, where she writes about the environment, nutrition, finance, pets, and books. She also contributes to TheHealthy.com. Her work has appeared in Scholastic's Parent & Child magazine and blog, I Love Cats magazine, and Christianity Today, among other publications. Bright's book of parenting reflections: MOMS KICK BUTT, comes out in February, 2021. Her M.A. is in Spanish American Literature. Follow Dianne on Twitter @dibright, Facebook @AuthorDianneBright, and Instagram @authordiannebright.