Lent begins on Ash Wednesday and lasts six weeks. Historically, this season goes back to a period of special strict discipline which marked the final stage of preparation for people (catechumens) who were to be received into the Church by baptism at Easter. They also attended special classes on Christian doctrine called Catecheses, from which the word catechumens is derived.
The pre-baptismal fasts of the catechumens were mentioned by Justin in around 155 AD. In the fourth century it became the custom for all Christians to join the catechumens in their pre-baptismal fast and the clergy also encouraged all the people to attend instruction on the faith as a refresher course. The length of this time of preparation was gradually lengthened until, by the second quarter of the fourth century, the Lenten fast had been extended to six weeks.
The step of linking the six weeks’ Lenten fast with the 40-day fast of Jesus in the wilderness occurred only after Lent had come into existence as a preparation of candidates for baptism. (1)
Lent is a solemn season in the Church’s year. The liturgical colour is purple, there are no flowers and no Alleluias are sung. However, the fourth Sunday in Lent is known as Laetare Sunday because traditionally the Introit begins, “Rejoice, (Latin, Laetare) O Jerusalem”. This day is also known as Refreshment Sunday because at this half-way point in Lent there is a relaxation of the seasonal discipline. Rose-coloured vestments may be worn and flowers are permitted. Laetare Sunday corresponds to Gaudete Sunday in Advent. In many, if not most, churches Mothering Sunday is celebrated on the fourth Sunday in Lent.
Palm Sunday is the Sunday before Easter Day and marks the beginning of Holy Week.
The season of Lent ends just before the Maundy Thursday evening Eucharist of the Last Supper begins. But our Lenten fast of 40 days, which started on Ash Wednesday, should continue up to the Vigil on Holy Saturday. The 40 days do not include the Sundays in Lent because, as with all Sundays, they are a celebration of the Resurrection of Christ.
1. Dix, G. (1949) The shape of the liturgy, Westminster: Dacre Press.
General information about references
Biblical references are included in brackets in the text. Other references are listed at the end of each talk. The Scripture quotations are mostly from The New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, Anglicized Edition, copyright © 1989, 1995 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America and are used by permission. All rights reserved. The initials NRSV are used at the end of these quotations.
Some Scripture quotations are from Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright © 1946, 1952, and 1971 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. The initials RSV are used at the end of these quotations.
A few quotations are from the Jerusalem Bible, copyright © 1966 by Darton, Longman and Todd Ltd and Doubleday & Company, Inc. The words 'Jerusalem Bible' are used at the end of these quotations.
A very few quotations are from The Catholic Edition of the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright © 1965, 1966 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. The words 'Catholic edition RSV' are used at the end of these quotations.