Next Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of the season of Lent. With that in mind, here are some fun facts about Lent.
What does Lent mean?
The word Lent comes from lencten, an old English word for “spring,” which is related to the word length, referring to the lengthening of the days. Other traditions refer to it as things like the "Great Fast," "the Forty," or the "Fasting Time."
Lent is an ancient Christian practice
In the ancient church, Lent was the period during which catechumens—those being prepared for baptism at Easter—prepared themselves for a life of Christian discipleship. It eventually became a time of penance for all Christians.
It has become common to abstain from something during Lent—chocolate or sweets are usually high up on the list—but the practice of giving up something or taking on a spiritual discipline is an ancient one. Traditionally, the practices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving were Lenten discipline, as these are the three subjects covered in Jesus' teaching in Matthew 6;1–6; 16–21, which is traditionally read on Ash Wednesday. Today, some people have decided rather than abstaining from something, to add an activity as part of their spiritual discipline.
The Lenten fast is a period of forty days, following the 40 days that Jesus spent in the wilderness fasting before beginning his public ministry. There is a monastery in Jericho, Palestine to this day built near caves in the side of the mountain where it is believed that Jesus conducted his fast. This Monastery of the Temptation is a pilgrimage site for many to this day—and, somewhat ironically, near a very popular restaurant built into the side of that same mountain.
If you look closely at the calendar, you'll notice that there are actually forty-six days between Ash Wednesday and Easter. How can that be if Lent is a period of 40 days? The answer is that the Sundays in Lent do not count as part of the fast. From a Christian perspective, Sundays are perpetual feast days in the church in commemoration of the Resurrection, so no fasting is allowed on Sundays! Does that mean you can have your little piece of chocolate on Sunday? Why, yes, it does!
Pretzels—the Perfect Lenten Snack
For many years, Christians abstained from meat and other animal products during Lent. That meant that no lard, butter, eggs or other such ingredients would be used. One monk decided to make a tasty little treat with rolled up bread dough that he twisted into a shape that resembled little arms crossed over the chest in a posture of prayer. (In the Middle Ages, people prayed with arms crossed rather than hands clasped.) These brezeln, or "little arms" in German, are the origins of the pretzels we know today.
McDonald's and Lent
If your business is in making hamburgers and significant portions of your customers are abstaining from meat for Lent, you need to rethink your options. That was the reality that faced McDonald's when millions of Catholics would abstain from meat for an entire month and a half. To meet this need, and to preserve something of their customer base, McDonald's decided to create a menu item that abstaining Lent observers could enjoy. And thus the Filet-o-fish was born.
The season of Lent will soon be upon us. However you plan to observe it—fasting, abstaining, praying, almsgiving, taking on new disciplines, eating a lot of pretzels—may it be a time of reflection as we move together through the wilderness of Lent into the Promised Land of Easter.