In the northern hemisphere, Lent begins when all is in darkness. The days are short and the nights are long; the whole world seems to be asleep. As Lent passes, the days grow longer and signs of spring begin to appear.

In the early Church, Lent was a time of preparation for those who were planning to become Christians. The catechumens were held to strict disciplines during Lent; they could not bathe, and had to fast each day until sunset. Many of the other members of the Christian community chose to take part in these practices as well, and kept the same disciplines as the catechumens.

During spring in those days, it was necessary for people to eat all the perishable foods that remained from the winter larder, including such items as meat, cheese, eggs and butter. The cold had provided natural refrigeration, but as the earth warmed, these foods began to spoil, and there was little to eat until spring vegetables began to grow. This made fasting during Lent somewhat of a natural practice.

Over the years, people went from one meal late in the afternoon and only water otherwise, to small meals during the day to sustain their energy for the manual labor most people were engaged in. In the nineteenth century, one main meal and two light meals became the norm for fasting.


The duration of Lent –40 days– was determined in the 4th century. The number “40” recalled the 40 days Moses spent on Mount Sinai before receiving the commandments, as well as the 40 years the Hebrew people wandered in the desert before reaching the promised land. Christian scriptures tell how Jesus fasted in the desert for 40 days before beginning his public ministry.

Lent ends with the start of Triduum, three holy days that mark the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus. The Triduum begins with evening Mass on Holy Thursday, and ends with vespers (evening prayer) on Easter Sunday.

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