Lent: From Rigid Tradition to Spiritual Renewal

Cathy Wentz

Contributing Writer
Updated Feb 18, 2022
Lent: From Rigid Tradition to Spiritual Renewal

The most important principle when it comes to the modern-day Lenten sacrifices Christians may practice is the attitude of the heart.

With the celebration of Christmas in our rearview mirrors, Christians throughout the world are looking forward to the next major holiday on our religious calendar. That would be Easter. However, many Christian denominations prefer to call this holiday Resurrection Sunday.

But, before we joyously celebrate Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, we solemnly observe His death on the cross, which we call Good Friday. Then there is the lead-up period to Good Friday that is known as Lent. Many Christians, from Catholics to Protestants, observe Lent, which is known to begin with Ash Wednesday, and they observe Lent in a variety of ways.

What is the history of Lent?

Lent was established in the fourth century as a 40-day period of fasting, although the actual length of time between Ash Wednesday and Resurrection Sunday is 46 days because Sundays are not included in the count. 

The original purpose of Lent was to emphasize the need for repentance in the lives of Catholics. The strict Lenten rules forced in the early centuries of Christianity could be compared to the way people of the Old Testament “fasted and repented in sackcloth and ashes.”

During Medieval times, the Lenten rules imposed upon the Roman Catholic church were very rigorous, according to an article by Dr. Taylor Marshall. He gathered his information from Thomas Aquinas who lived during the 13th century (approximately around 1224 (or 1226) to 1274 A.D.).

Here is a brief summary of those Lenten demands by the Catholic church:

Ash Wednesday and Good Friday were described as “black fasts,” which meant that Catholics could not eat at all from the time they woke up to 3 p.m. (which was believed by some to be the time that Christ actually died). The 3 p.m. ending time goes back as far as the 5th century.

One interesting point to note is that the practice of sprinkling ashes on the top of one’s head to observe Ash Wednesday is believed to have become an official Catholic Church practice sometime in the 11th century. Since strict church regulations for fasting on Ash Wednesday were extremely stringent during this time, it could be said that the church was ignoring Jesus’ instructions regarding how people should approach fasting in Matthew 6:16-18 (NLT).

“And when you fast, don’t make it obvious, as the hypocrites do, for they try to look miserable and disheveled so people will admire them for their fasting. I tell you the truth, that is the only reward they will ever get. But when you fast, comb your hair and wash your face. Then no one will notice that you are fasting, except your Father, who knows what you do in private, And your Father, who sees everything, will reward you.”

Other rules regarding abstinence included the time between Ash Wednesday and “the Easter vigil” that began around noon on the Saturday prior to Easter Sunday, with the exception of Good Friday (already covered). 

Prohibitions included:

  • Animal fats or meats, including lard. (Fish was permitted.)

  • Eggs

  • Dairy products such as milk, cream, cheese, or butter

  • No sexual relations between spouses

Fast-forward through the centuries and the Catholic rules for Lenten sacrifice and observance have been considerably relaxed.

So, what is the Meaning of Lent?

That period between Ash Wednesday and Resurrection Sunday still holds deep meaning for Christians of all denominations, but without the strict legalistic demands made by the predominant church of the past. The Bible Study Tools website describes the full season of Lent this way: “It is a time to lay aside our wants and needs to come humbly and meek before God, recognizing our need for a Savior above all.”

Then, important events within this season also carry their own deep meaning:

Ash Wednesday -  This day of introduction to the Lenten season emphasizes our mortality, that God created us from dust and our bodies will someday return to dust. So, on this day, we call to mind the fact that every human will someday die and either face the consequences of our sin, which is in our nature, or enjoy our eternal life with God if we have accepted Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior. 

Maundy Thursday (currently known as Holy Thursday) - This day commemorates the Last Supper that Jesus shared with his disciples while celebrating Passover. On this evening, Jesus washed His disciples’ feet and then endured the struggle with His fear of what He would face on the cross while in the Garden of Gethsemane. There, he prayed to His Father that if it was possible, He might not have to take that “cup” of suffering. Yet He also said to His Father, “Not My will, but Yours be done" (Luke 22:42).

Good Friday - Then, Good Friday solemnizes the day that Jesus was crucified with the description of “good,” describing the righteous sacrifice of Jesus as the payment for the entire world’s sins. His payment for our sins is the only way anyone can look forward to eternal life with God.

Modern Lenten Observance

As United States citizens have enjoyed the freedom to practice their own faith as they see fit, they have many choices regarding the way they can observe Lent. Many Catholics, and some Protestants, may still observe Ash Wednesday as the introduction of the Lenten season. Many of them may also observe Holy Thursday and Good Friday as well by attending vigils, masses, and other services.

Christians of many denominations may observe the Lenten season by occasional fasting, which is sacrificing all food or particular foods or activities they enjoy as they seek to reflect on their sinful natures and grow in their relationship with God. 

Forms of Fasting

The most common form of fasting is going without any food for a set period of time. In this kind of fast, water is still consumed. However, some Christians may simply choose to fast from a particular food or drink, such as desserts or soda. Observing biblical characters, Daniel chose to fast for three weeks, but the Bible says he only abstained from “pleasant food,” including meat or wine (among other things). He did this out of mourning about a message that had been revealed to him. (See Daniel 10:3 NKJV.)

Other Christians may fast from activities to which they are particularly attached during the Lenten season. Here are a few  examples:

  • Television and social media (This can be particularly helpful for the soul because much of social media can be very negative.)

  • Exercise 

  • Complaining, having an attitude of ingratitude

  • Here’s a good one, but very challenging - asking God for what we want

Lent free of Legalism

The most important principle when it comes to the modern-day Lenten sacrifices Christians may practice is the attitude of the heart. As stated before by Jesus Himself, we should not advertise, in any way, concerning the sacrifices we are making. Otherwise, whatever we advertise will not be looked upon favorably by God, and the whole idea is to grow our relationship with God.

Additionally, Isaiah wrote about the attitude of some Israelites’ hearts when they went on a fast that turned out to be empty and actually displeasing to God:

“In fact, in the day of your fast you find pleasure,

And exploit all your laborers.

Indeed you fast for strife and debate,

And to strike with the fist of wickedness.

You will not fast as you do this day

To make your voice heard on high.”

(Isaiah 58:3-4 NKJV)

Christians who are fasting from anything during Lent should remember that it is their individual choice, and other Christians have no obligation to do what they are doing. Although the Catholic church has its particular set of rules regarding the corporate observance of Lent, the individual relationship with God is any Christian’s highest priority. 

Anne Stricherz wrote these very encouraging words: “I have always believed that Lent need not be about what we give up, but what we gain! Gain light, grow in love, live Lent!”

Additional Resources: 

Medieval Lenten rules (as described Saint Thomas Aquinas).


Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/LoveTheWind

Cathy Wentz lives with her husband, Brian, in Cedar City, UT, and has been a believer in Jesus Christ for more than 30 years. She has two grown children and four grandchildren, all who live in Cedar City. Her writing experience includes working as a newspaper reporter for eight years, and she currently serves as a public relations assistant for a local orthopaedic surgeon, which involves writing blogs, social media posts and other web content.