Traditionally, Lent lasts for roughly 40 days to mirror the length of time Jesus spent fasting in the wilderness, resisting the temptation of Satan.
Lent, which begins on Ash Wednesday, March 6, is observed by Catholics and evangelical Christians across denominations. But the season isn’t just observed by the faithful: 1 in 4 Americans, religious and nonreligious alike, participate in Lent, accordingto LifeWay Research.
Here are five interesting facts about Lent, from the origin of the season’s official colour to the meaning of ashes.
The origin of purple
Purple, specifically violet, is the symbolic colour used in churches throughout Lent, from drapes and altar frontals to crosses and flowers.
Purple is used for two reasons: first, because it’s associated with mourning and so anticipates the pain and suffering of the crucifixion.
In an act of derision toward Jesus, Pilate placed a purple robe on Jesus, whom he called “King of the Jews.” Mark 15:17 reads: “They dressed Him up in purple, and after twisting a crown of thorns, they put it on Him.”
Second, purple is the colour associated with royalty and celebrates Christ’s resurrection and sovereignty. In ancient Rome, “Tyrian purple” was a designator of status. An extremely high value was placed on the dye as it was extracted from sea snails.
The meaning of ashes
Around the world, Ash Wednesday worship involves church services where ashes are placed in the shape of a cross on the foreheads of worshipers. Traditionally, worshipers choose to leave the ashes on their foreheads for the remainder of the day. These ashes are an outward sign and symbol of grief, as well as purification and sorrow for sins.
While there is no specific mention of Ash Wednesday in the Bible, the practice of repentance and mourning in sackcloth and ashes is found throughout the Old and New Testaments.
In the Old Testament, the prophet Daniel speaks of seeking the Lord for the release of His people from Babylonian exile with fasting, sackcloth, and ashes (Daniel 9:3).
Later, the prophet Jonah 3:6 states: “When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust.”
In some churches, palm branches from the previous Palm Sunday service are saved, and then burned to produce the ashes for the Ash Wednesday service.
Food is the most popular category for abstention
Thanks to the internet, it’s possible to follow in real time what Twitter users say they are giving up for Lent.
This year, food (sweets, soda, sugar, chocolate, meat) is the most popular category for abstention, followed by technology and smoking/drugs/alcohol. Last year, social networking topped the list, followed by Twitter, alcohol, chocolate, and swearing.
While the vast majority of Christians give up something that they enjoy for Lent, others place less emphasis on what to give up — and more on what they do, volunteering and giving of themselves to others.
Catholics remain the most likely to observe Lent
According to LifeWay Research, 3 in 10 Americans with evangelical beliefs (28 percent) say they observe Lent. Catholics remain the most likely to observe Lent (61 percent), with 2 out of 3 fasting from a favorite food or beverage (64 percent). Protestants (20 percent) and those with evangelical beliefs (28 percent) are less likely.
Overall, 1 in 4 Americans observes Lent (24 percent), according to LifeWay, and Hispanics were the most likely ethnic group to observe Lent (36 percent). Interestingly, they were more likely than whites to abstain from a favorite activity (34 percent vs. 17 percent) or a bad habit (50 percent vs. 30 percent).
Scott McConnell, executive director of LifeWay Research, pointed out that overall, Lent remains a religious event rather than one that appeals to a broader public.
“Lent is not about having your best life now,” McConnell said. “Those who observe it believe they are giving up things they want in order to focus on what God wants. There’s little popular appeal in that.”
The earliest mention of Lent comes from the council of Nicaea
The word Lent itself is derived from the Anglo-Saxon words lencten, meaning spring, and lenctentid, which was the word for March, the month in which the majority of Lent falls.
The earliest mention of Lent in the history of the Church comes from the council of Nicaea in 325 AD, according to the Catholic Education Resource Center. Although best known for the profession of faith — the ‘Nicene Creed’ — which is still recited in churches today, the council also issued 20 canons. The fifth of these canons speaks of Lent.
By the 10th century, the monk Aelfric tied the practice, which dates to the eighth century, to the period before Easter, writing, “Now let us do this little at the beginning of our Lent that we strew ashes upon our heads to signify that we ought to repent of our sins during the Lenten fast.”