Each year, Christians worldwide observe Lent, a period of penance and prayer leading up to Easter, when they celebrate Jesus Christ rising from the dead. Depending on the denomination, Lent begins on Clean Monday or Ash Wednesday and ends during Holy Week. Although a traditional 40-day season, today Lent can actually last up to 48 days depending on the start and end dates, and whether Sundays are included.
Per the New American Bible, 40 days is the appropriate preparation time before an important event. For example, Moses spent 40 days on Mount Sinai before presenting the Ten Commandments to the Israelites, and Jesus Christ fasted for that long in the desert before beginning his public ministry.
The Catholic Education Research Center explains that although Lent is an ancient Christian observance, the practices and duration varied until the Middle Ages. In fact, St. Irenaeus addressed this lack of uniformity in a 2nd century letter to Pope Victor I. Eventually, the church universally required believers to eat only one meal per day and abstain from all meat and eggs for 40 days (this is a 46-day period but excludes the six Lenten Sundays). Modern observances are less strict.
Today, most Christians employ the Gregorian calendar--or a modified version of it--to determine the date of Easter, per the U.S. Naval Observatory. Using this method, Easter Sunday occurs after the first full moon following the vernal equinox (March 21). The full moon in this equation is based on church tables that don't always coincide with the astronomical event. Because the date for Easter varies each year, so does Lent.
Ash Wednesday--46 calendar days before Easter--is the beginning of Lent in modern Western churches, including Episcopal, Lutheran, Methodist, and Roman Catholic churches. To commemorate it, believers attend church, fast, give to the poor and are marked with ashes as a sign of repentance.
Similar customs are practised by Orthodox Christians on Clean Monday--two days before Ash Wednesday--which launches their Lenten season. Moreover, in Cyprus and Greece, it is a national holiday along with Easter.
Just as the beginning of Lent differs per denomination, so does the ending. According to ChurchYear.net, this penitential period concludes on either Thursday or Saturday of Holy Week.
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