Lent is typically associated with Catholics, though some Protestants observe it as well. Customs surrounding Lent are various and their origins are uncertain. Lent is neither a biblical mandate nor a biblical tradition, but is instead a liturgical tradition. In general, it can be said that Lent is a six-week, or 40-day (excluding Sundays), period of fasting prior to Easter. The intent of the fast is to demonstrate penance in preparation for Easter.
It begins with Ash Wednesday and ends with Easter Sunday. The length of the Lenten fast was established in the 4th century as 46 days (40 days, not counting Sundays). During Lent, participants eat sparingly or give up a particular food or habit. It’s not uncommon for people to give up smoking during Lent, or to swear off watching television or eating candy or telling lies. It’s six weeks of self-discipline.
In most Western traditions, Lent begins on Ash Wednesday and concludes either on Maundy Thursday or on Holy Saturday. In Eastern tradition, Lent begins on Clean Monday (the Monday seven weeks prior to Easter) and ends on the Friday before Palm Sunday. Still others observe an eight-week period of Lent, which excludes both Saturdays and Sundays. The 40 days of fasting is meant to represent Jesus’ wilderness temptation (Luke 4:1-12) or the supposed 40 hours He spent in the tomb. The number 40 may also be used because it is an important number in the Bible—for instance, the number of days of rain in Noah’s Flood (Genesis 7:4), the amount of time Moses spent on the mountain with God (Exodus 24:18), and the number of years the Hebrews wandered in the wilderness (Numbers 14:33).
Lent began as a way for Catholics to remind themselves of the value of repentance. The austerity of the Lenten season was seen as similar to how people in the Old Testament fasted and repented in sackcloth and ashes (Esther 4:1-3; Jeremiah 6:26; Daniel 9:3).
However, over the centuries Lenten observances have developed a much more “sacramental” value. Many Catholics believe that giving something up for Lent is a way to attain God’s blessing. But the Bible teaches that grace cannot be earned; grace is “the gift of righteousness” (Romans 5:17). Also, Jesus taught that fasting should be done discreetly: “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen” (Matthew 6:16-18). Jesus’ command to “wash your face” seems to conflict with the practice of rubbing ashes on one’s face on Ash Wednesday.
Fasting can be a good thing, and God is pleased when we repent of sinful habits. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with setting aside some time to focus on Jesus’ death and resurrection. However, repenting of sin is something we should be doing every day of the year, not just for the 46 days of Lent.
If a Christian wishes to observe Lent, he is free to do so. The key is to focus on repenting of sin and consecrating oneself to God. Lent should not be a time of boasting of one’s sacrifice or trying to earn God’s favor or increasing His love. God’s love for us could not be any greater than it already is.