When Is Lent and Why Is It Celebrated?

As spring...well, springs, you may find yourself wondering, "when is Lent?" Find out what it has to do with Easter and why it falls on different dates each year.

Before we indulge in making Easter crafts, keeping an eye out for the Easter bunny, or painting Easter eggs, those who celebrate the holiday typically observe the season of Lent. Lent is the 40-day (technically 46 days, as Sundays are not counted) Christian season of repentance and reflection taken in preparation for Easter. Many observers spend the season fasting or engage disciplines such as prayer. Additionally, observers often forgo meat on Fridays, instead opting for fish. But when is Lent? Because Easter is on a different Sunday every year, you might annually find yourself asking, “well, when is Lent this year?”

Lent begins with Ash Wednesday

The season begins with Ash Wednesday, which occurs on February 17th this year. In the Ash Wednesday ritual, ashes made from the palms of the previous year’s Palm Sunday are smeared in a cross across the foreheads of practitioners. The ashes themselves are symbols of repentance and death, in keeping with the season. According to Britannica, a period of penance before the Easter festival has long been observed, most likely since the time of the apostles; it was a time for baptismal candidates to prepare and for sinners to practice public penance (of the sackcloth and ashes variety). Even though such practices have long since died out, the rituals of Ash Wednesday recall that time and act as a reminder of the need to repent. Find out about the importance and history of other traditional symbols of Easter, too.

Lent ends with Maundy Thursday

Lent ends during Holy Week—this year, Thursday, April 1st—three days before Easter. Holy Week itself begins with Palm Sunday, the Sunday before Easter, which celebrates Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem to observe Passover. Holy Wednesday follows, which marks Judas’s plan to betray Jesus. And then comes Holy Thursday, or Maundy Thursday, commemorating the Last Supper. In the Catholic tradition, this day is observed by a traditional washing of feet. In fact, the name of Maundy Thursday is connected to this tradition; the ceremony of the washing of feet is itself called maundy. According to Merriam-Webster, the word maundy traces back to the Latin word mandatum—meaning command—recalling Jesus’ words at the Last Supper, said as he washed the disciples’ feet, “a new commandment I give unto you, that ye love one another.” While Maundy Thursday ends the Lenten season, Holy Week continues with Good Friday and Holy Saturday. Here are the surprising things you never knew about Good Friday.

When is Lent and why does it fall on different dates each year?

To answer the question “when is Lent,” one must determine the date of Easter. Easter Sunday falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox, which can vary between March 22 and April 25 each year. This year, the spring equinox falls on March 20, with the first full moon, or Paschal full moon, occurring on Sunday, March 28, making Easter Sunday April 4 in 2021. Ash Wednesday is then set 46 days before Easter, beginning the Lenten season. Of course, this all applies only to the Western Christian traditions which rely on the Gregorian calendar. The Eastern traditions use the Julian calendar instead, and practice “Great Lent” with loosely similar traditions.

How does the season of Lent relate to Easter?

The 40 days of Lent are set in imitation of the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness before he began his public ministry. But the number 40 has important significance in the Bible, and periods of preparation or self-examination—like Lent—are often a length of 40 days or 40 years. For example, the Israelites spent 40 years wandering the desert after their exodus from Egypt. The Lenten time of reflection is meant to prepare individuals for the joyous celebration of Jesus’ resurrection on Easter. Now, prepare for Easter with these happy Easter quotes.

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