Lent [Old Eng. lencten, = spring], Latin Quadragesima (meaning 40; thus the 40 days of Lent). In Christianity, Lent is a time of penance, prayer, preparation for or recollection of baptism, and preparation for the celebration of Easter. Observance of Lent is as old as the 4th cent. In Eastern churches it is reckoned as the six weeks before Palm Sunday. In the West the penitential season begins liturgically with Septuagesima, the ninth Sunday before Easter; the next Sundays are Sexagesima and Quinquagesima. Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, the 40th weekday before Easter. Of the Sundays in Lent the fifth is Passion Sunday and the last is Palm Sunday. The week preceding Easter is Holy Week. Lent ends at midnight Holy Saturday. See Shrove Tuesday. From the 5th to 9th cent. strict fasting was required; only one meal was allowed per day, and meat and fish (and sometimes eggs and dairy) were forbidden. During and since the 9th cent. fasting restrictions were gradually loosened. By the 20th cent. meat was allowed, except on Fridays. Pope Paul VI began (1966) a trend toward penitential works (such as acts of charity) in conjunction with Lent. The Christian observance of Lent may have a parallel in the fasting practiced in Greco-Roman mystery religions, in which it was considered an aid to enlightenment and often preceeded prophecy. Lent may also have a parallel in the Jewish Omer, the interval between Passover and Shavuot that has become a time of semimourning and sadness. During the weeks of the Omer period, Jews in some communities refrain from wearing new clothes and there are no marriages or other public festivities.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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