In a few short weeks, eggs will be painted, baskets will be filled with candy and bunnies will be sent around the world to hide baskets around children’s houses. In other words: Easter’s on its way.
Saying that’s what Easter is about, though, is like saying Christmas is about a large man in a red suit squeezing up and down people’s chimneys to leave stuff under a pine tree.
Easter is, at its heart, a Christian holiday, celebrating the death and resurrection of Christ. Between now and then, however, lies a marathon of forty days of fasting: Lent.
Lent is, traditionally, the time between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday when many Christians fast or give up a vice, bad habit or favorite pastime.
According to Reverend Steve Fazenbaker, minister and director of the Georgia Tech Wesley Foundation, “Lent remembers the forty days that Jesus spent in the wilderness being tempted by Satan and is an invitation for us to examine our own lives—internally and externally—as we walk with Jesus towards Jerusalem and towards the Crucifixion and Resurrection…As we prepare for our new life, it’s a chance to come to terms with what is it about our current state we need to let go.”
Popular commitments for Lent include things related to improving health (like giving up some kind of junk food or getting out and exercising more), decreasing the amount of wasted time (like watching less television or spending less time online), or simply becoming a better or more religious person (through prayer, community service or self-reflection).
A bit of basic math, however, will quickly reveal that there are more than forty days between Ash Wednesday and Easter. Technically, there are forty-six days between these two bookends (the six weeks before Easter and the second half of the week of Ash Wednesday), but Sundays aren’t counted as days of fasting during Lent, as they are considered days of feasting in honor of Christ.
Fazenbaker says that Lent has been around as a religious tradition since the early roots of the Church in the fourth century, though it has undergone some shifts in observance. “The first couple of centuries after the Resurrection, the Church was underground, and [it didn’t become] ‘institutionalized’ [until] after Constantine converted to Christianity in 313 A.D. From 313 on, that’s when the Church came out from underground and started working out its way of being. So, Lent, as we celebrate it now, probably goes back to the fourth century.
“During the Reformation, the Protestant movement moved away from a lot of the things that were ‘institutionalized church,’ and observing Lent went by the wayside, but now that the Catholic and the Protestant identities have lived apart and figured out our own identities, the Protestants are beginning to realize the value of keeping the Church calendar and observing the seasons, so it’s becoming more common place in the Protestant tradition,” Fazenbaker said.
Another holiday arose out of the Lenten tradition, albeit unintentionally: Mardi Gras. The traditional parties, celebrations and big meals of Mardi Gras originated from families cleaning out the house of any and all indulgent foods that wouldn’t be consumed during Lent.
The last week of Lent (between Palm Sunday and Easter), is known as Holy Week. Traditionally, a large service used to be held on Palm Sunday, and smaller services would be held every day of the week, but, as time has passed, this has become less true.
According to Fazenbaker, this has led to Palm Sunday taking on a bit of a more important role.
“The two big days on the Christian calendar are the days when we celebrate the Incarnation—Christmas—and the Resurrection—Easter—and there are seasons built around each one. There’s a season of preparation, a season of celebration and a season of response for each. At Christmas, there’s Advent (preparation), Christmas (celebration) and Epiphany (response). For the Resurrection, there’s Lent, then Easter, then the season after Pentecost, the day the Holy Spirit came and empowered the disciples in the Upper Room,” Fazenbaker said.
This year, Easter Sunday falls on April 12.