What is Lent?
Lent is a solemn observance that commemorates the 40 days Jesus spent fasting in the desert - a period during which he endured several temptations by Satan. The early Christians recorded the 40 days prior to Easter being a period of fasting and abstinence - Saint Athanasius wrote in 339 AD that the Lenten fast was a 40 day fast that the entire Christian world observed.
"Our fast at any other time is voluntary; but during Lent, we sin if we do not fast"
Saint Augustine of Hippo
How long is Lent?
In the Roman Catholic Rite since 1970, Lent begins on Ash Wednesday and continues until Manudy Thursday - a period of 44 days. The fasting does not take place on Sundays during this period (though fasting an hour prior to Holy Communion still applies) as Sundays, since the very beginning of the Christian faith, are treated as Feast Days and days of rest. It is important to note - while one is no longer required to fast, if taking a break from the fasting would be detrimental to continuing the fast throughout the remainder of Lent one should continue that aspect of their fasting. It is also important to note that while the Lenten fast does end on Maundy Thursday, fasting continues through Holy Saturday as Lent is immediately followed by the Paschal fast leading into Easter. Following Lent's ending on Manudy Thursday the Easter Triduum begins.
What are the three pillars of Lent?
The three key pillars of Lent are:
3. Almsgiving (Donating)
What in the world is Mardi Gras?
Mardi Gras (or Fat Tuesday) refers to Carnival - a celebration that begins on or after the Epiphany Feast and culminated on Fat Tuesday - the day before Lent begins (Ash Wednesday).
Fasting and Abstinence
In the Roman Rite prior to 1966, Catholics were obliged to fast by taking only one full meal a day through the entirety of the 40 days. A smaller meal a (Collation) was introduced in the 14th century. The 1917 Code of Canon Law updated this to allow for a full meal at any time during the day and two collations determined by local customs. No meat was to be consumed on Ash Wednesday nor on any of the Fridays falling during Lent.
1966, the obligation to fast during all 40 days was reduced by Pope Paul VI - requiring only fasting on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Fasting during the entirety of Lent was still recommended but no longer an obligation. Local Bishops were given the opportunity to grant permission for the congregation to replace fasting with prayer and other charity events with the caveat that those in more wealthy areas should practice asceticism.
Certain exceptions to the Friday fasting exist - specifically if that Friday has a Solemnity. There are three principle Solemnities during Lent - the Solemnity of Saint Joseph, Solemnity of the Annunciation and where appropriate the Feast of Saint Patrick. When Ash Wednesday conflicts with Chinese New Year celebrations, the faithful are dispensed from Fasting and are instead exhorted to use other forms of penance.
What Liturgical Practices take place?
During Lent, religious objects are traditionally veiled during Lent (though the tradition of veiling for all 40 days is uncommon in the United States). The Stations of the Cross remain unveiled. Crosses are generally decorated with jewels and gemstones (Crux Gemmata) and are often veiled in purple. On the Sundays in Lent, the Gloria in excelsis Deo is omitted (but used still during Solemnities). The Gloria is used on Maundy Thursday alongside the ringing of bells. Roman Catholic clergy change their vestments to Purple (or Violet) during Lent (though change to White during Solemnities). On the fourth Sunday of Lent (known as Laetare Sunday from the phrase "Laetare Jerusalem" ("Rejoice, O Jerusalem")) the vestments are changed to rose.