Lent: What you need to know

What is Lent?

Lent is the penitential season in the Church that begins on Ash Wednesday and ends at Easter.

Why Ashes?

Ashes have been a traditional sign of penance since Biblical times. As Lent is a season of penance for the entire Church, we begin Lent by participating communally in the sign of ashes. Read more about our Ash Wednesday schedule.

What is Penance?

A penance is an act or practice meant to help us repent. To repent is to turn away from sin and toward God. Penances therefore help us orient our lives back to God. The three penitential practices most closely associated with Lent are prayer, fasting and almsgiving.

What is Prayer?

St. John of Damascus defines prayer as the “lifting of the mind and heart to God.” While Christians should pray every day – St. Paul says we should “pray without ceasing” (1 Thes 5:16) – Lent is a time to be especially attentive to our prayer lives and increase our usual habits of prayer.

What is Fasting?

Fasting means going without food, though in the broader sense of the word it is sometimes applied to other forms of self-denial.

The law of the Church defines fasting as consuming one meal per day, but does not preclude taking additional food if needed to sustain strength, as long as it does not equal another meal. Water and medicine do not break the fast. Catholics aged 18 to 59 are expected to fast unless precluded by health. The mandatory days of fasting are Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, though the Church encourages voluntary fasting on all weekdays during Lent.

Catholics age 14 and over are also expected to abstain from eating flesh meat (fish is OK) on Ash Wednesday and on all Fridays during Lent.

It is common for Catholics to voluntarily take on additional forms of self-denial during Lent, such as giving up a favorite food, limiting use of social media, forgoing certain entertainments, or otherwise denying themselves something they desire.

What is Almsgiving?

Strictly speaking, almsgiving means giving money to the poor, though the idea of almsgiving can be broadly applied to engaging in any kind of charitable service, especially to those in need.

This can be something formal, such as by volunteering at a food pantry, or informal, such as doing your roommate’s laundry for the week. The point is to engage in work for the good of others.

Get the most out of Lent

Prayer reminds us to turn our hearts and minds to God. Fasting and other acts of self-denial help us to be less focused on ourselves. Almsgiving and other chartable works help us to focus on the good of others.

In this way, being intentional about the traditional practices of Lent helps us to follow the first and greatest commandment – to love God with all our soul, all our heart, and all our mind, and to love our neighbor as ourselves (Mt 22:37).