Spiritual Growth and Christian Living Resources

What Is Lent? It's Meaning and Importance Explained

  • Sarah Phillips Crosswalk.com Contributing Writer
  • Updated Feb 21, 2024
What Is Lent? It's Meaning and Importance Explained

Lent is a 40-day period leading up to Easter that begins on Ash Wednesday and ends on Holy Saturday. The word "lent" comes from the old English word lencten which means lengthen - referring to the season of spring and longer daytime. The length of Lent represents the 40 days Jesus spent fasting in the wilderness before beginning his ministry. Lent is a time of spiritual renewal and reflection in preparation for observing Good Friday, the death of Jesus, and celebrating Easter, the resurrection of Jesus. 

The purpose of Lent is to draw closer to God through prayer, repentance, and self-examination. During Lent, many Christians fast or give up certain indulgences as a form of self-discipline and penance. This may include abstaining from certain foods, activities, or habits.

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And he fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterward he was hungry. Matthew 4:1-2

What is the Meaning of Lent?

Just as we set aside time to spiritually prepare for Christmas Day, it makes sense to set aside time to prepare for the two most important days of the Christian year - Good Friday and Easter. Lent is a time that offers us an opportunity to come to terms with the human condition we may spend the rest of the year running from, bringing our need for a Savior to the forefront.  Lent is a time to open the doors of our hearts a little wider and understand our Lord a little deeper so that when Good Friday and Easter come, it is not just another day at church but an opportunity to receive the overflowing graces God has to offer.

Lent is more frequently observed as a solemn time of preparation for remembering the death and resurrection of Jesus at Easter. From the start of Lent on Ash Wednesday till Lent ends on Easter Sunday, Lent is traditionally a time of fasting or giving something up, known as abstinence. Lent gives us time to prepare our minds and hearts for remembering the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. 

Prayer is a significant focus during Lent. During the 40 days, we seek God's forgiveness, accept his love and mercy, and repent or turn from our sins. Fasting or abstaining from something, like our favorite food or activity, not only gives us time to pray but reminds us of Jesus' suffering and sacrifice. 

When Does Lent Start?

Every year, Lent begins with Ash Wednesday and is always 46 days before Easter Sunday. The Lent season is a 40-day long (not counting Sundays) marked by repentance, fasting, reflection, and ultimately celebration. The 40-day period represents Christ’s time of temptation in the wilderness, where he fasted and where Satan tempted him. Lent asks believers to set aside a time each year for similar fasting, marking an intentional season of focus on Christ’s life, ministry, sacrifice, and resurrection.

In 2024, Ash Wednesday falls on February 14, which means Lent will begin on that day. Therefore, Lent in 2024 will go from February 14 to March 30, with Easter Sunday celebrated on March 31st, 2024. (learn more at: When is Lent? The Start of Lent, A Guide to the Start and End of Lent)

Practicing Lent Traditions

You can benefit from celebrating Lent even if your church does not formally do so. Here are some of the key elements of the Lenten season and some of the symbolism that comes with it. Many of these practices can be celebrated both individually and as a community:

  • Purple: Like Advent, the official color for Lent is purple. Usually, churches celebrating Lent choose the deepest, darkest shade of purple for this special season. They may also strip their churches bare of some of the usual decorations adorning the walls. Purple is the color of repentance for sins and also symbolizes the state of our souls outside the light of Christ. During this time, pray for those who do not know Christ and for those who have sinned gravely against Him.

  • Confession: As mentioned above, Lent is a penitential season or expressed sorrow and repentance... The 40 days are set aside to examine areas of recurring sin in our lives that prevent us from conforming to God's Will. An excellent way to start an examination of conscience is by praying Psalm 139, verses 23-24: "Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting."

  • Fasting and Prayer: Fasting is a practice that has really gone by the wayside in many Christian circles. Yet, if done correctly, it can be a powerful time to renew your relationship with God. Fasting can be found in both the Old Testament and the New, with Moses (Exodus 34:28; Deuteronomy 9:9,18 ), Elijah (1 Kings 19:8), and our Lord (Matthew 4:2) all participating in 40-day fasts. Fasting is a way of denying ourselves the excesses of life so that we might be more attuned to the Lord's voice. It is also a way of disciplining yourself, strengthening your "spiritual muscles," so to speak, so that when temptations arise in life, you are already used to saying "no" to your desires. And finally, fasting is also a way of participating, in a small way, in the sufferings of Christ and can be particularly powerful when accompanied by prayer and confession.

  • Meditating on Christ's Sacrifice for Mankind: In addition to periodic fasting and prayer, our scriptural meditations typically turn to the salvation offered to us through Christ's suffering. Read Old Testament Scriptures prophesying the suffering of Christ and the New Testament Gospel accounts.

  • Charity/Almsgiving: A very important element of the Lenten season is becoming aware of not only the suffering and sacrifice of Christ but also the suffering of others. Between now and Good Friday, choose one way you can increase your giving to those in need. It could be through extra financial offerings, donating goods you no longer need or use to charity, or increasing your personal time commitment to a ministry or cause close to your heart.

Important Days of Lent

The key events of Lent include Ash Wednesday, Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday. 

At the start of Lent, on Ash Wednesday, many Christians get a cross on their foreheads from the ashes during a church service. The ashes symbolize grief and the acceptance of our sinful state. 

Palm Sunday remembers the entrance of Jesus Christ into Jerusalem, where He was welcomed as King just days before His crucifixion.

Maundy Thursday is recognized as the day before Jesus is crucified. It is believed to be the day Jesus celebrated Passover with his disciples and, most notably, washed their feet as a display of humility and love. 

Good Friday is the day we remember the crucifixion and death of Jesus on the cross. It is called "good" because it is part of God's plan for our salvation. God's good plan to redeem us from sin included the suffering of Jesus.

Holy Saturday is the day between Good Friday and Easter Sunday in Christian tradition. It commemorates the day when Jesus Christ's body was laid in the tomb after his crucifixion, and it is a day of reflection and anticipation of his resurrection on Easter Sunday.

Easter Sunday is often referred to as the most important day in Christian history. Three days after his death, we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus rose again, conquering sin and death. Through Jesus, we have the opportunity to have eternal forgiveness for our sins, a relationship with God, and eternity in heaven.

Use our free 40-Day Lent Devotional Guide to lead you in prayer and scripture reading through the Lenten Season! Download your copy HERE.

The History and Origin of Lent

So where does Lent come from, and how do we "do" Lent? The Lenten season developed as part of the historical Christian calendar and is typically celebrated by Catholics and some mainline Protestant churches that follow a liturgical calendar. Although its format has varied throughout the centuries and throughout different cultures, the basic concept remains the same: to open our hearts to God's refining grace through prayer, confession, fasting, and almsgiving as we anticipate Holy Week. Lent traditionally lasts forty days, modeled after Christ's forty-day fast in the desert, and ends on Good Friday. In the Western Church, Lent officially begins with a reminder of our mortality on Ash Wednesday.

What to Give Up for Lent

Fasting is an important practice during Lent. Traditionally, people choose to give up certain indulgences or habits as a form of self-discipline to focus on spiritual growth and closeness to Christ. Are you looking for some ideas of what to give up for Lent? Here are some ideas for things that Christians might consider giving up for Lent:

Sweets and Desserts: Many people choose to give up sweets, chocolates, or desserts as a way to practice self-discipline.

Social Media: Taking a break from social media can provide more time for prayer, reflection, and personal connection. It also reduces distractions and allows for a quieter, more focused Lenten season.

Television and Entertainment: Cutting back on TV or entertainment can create more time for prayer, Bible study, and other spiritual practices.

Caffeine or Coffee: Giving up caffeine or coffee can be a physical sacrifice and a reminder to focus on spiritual needs rather than relying on external stimulants.

Meat: Abstaining from meat on certain days or throughout the Lenten period is a common practice, symbolizing solidarity with Christ's sacrifice.

Negative Speech or Gossip: Giving up negative speech, gossip, or critical comments can foster a more positive and uplifting environment.

Alcohol: Abstaining from alcohol during Lent is a way to practice self-control and redirect the focus on spiritual matters.

Shopping or Impulse Buying: Cutting back on unnecessary spending and material consumption can help shift the focus from material possessions to spiritual priorities.

Excessive Use of Technology: Reducing the time spent on smartphones, tablets, or computers can create a more contemplative and focused Lenten experience.

Complaining: Giving up the habit of complaining and cultivating a spirit of gratitude can lead to a more positive and thankful outlook on life.

It's important to note that giving up something for Lent is not simply to abstain from a particular pleasure but to use the opportunity for spiritual reflection, growth, and drawing closer to God. Individuals may replace what they give up with acts of kindness, prayer, or other positive habits to deepen their Lenten experience. 

Why We Celebrate

Unlike the childlike joy associated with the season of Advent, with its eager anticipation of the precious baby Jesus, Lent is an intensely penitential time as we examine our sinful natures and return to the God we have, through our own rebelliousness, hurt time and again. Lent is also an opportunity to contemplate what our Lord really did for us on the Cross - and it wasn't pretty. Ultimately, the purpose of Lent does not stop at sadness and despair - it points us to the hope of the Resurrection and the day when every tear will be dried (Rev. 21:4).

And about three o'clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, "Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?" that is, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" Matthew 27:33-49

Although the nature of suffering is not one that offers itself to easy explanations or pat answers, the answers we seek seem to make the most sense in light of the Cross. There is nothing in the world - no religion, philosophy, or material comfort - that offers such a powerful answer to life's toughest questions as the two slabs of wood on which our Savior died.  Although I was drawn to Christianity in search of joy, the Cross keeps me returning each day, year after year. It is this time of year, known as Lent, that I am reminded of what Jesus did for me.

When I look into the eyes of our suffering God, I'm in awe - suddenly, the complexity of our Lord, the love of our Lord, the humanity of our Lord shows through. I realize God is not just some nebulous energy source or a grandfather sitting in the clouds - He is so much more. The Cross is where our faith stands when all other faiths fail. Christ's sacrifice and his subsequent resurrection are the true "cruxes" of the Christian faith. Without one, there would be no salvation. Without the other, there is no hope. This is why Good Friday and the following Easter Sunday are the most important dates on the Christian calendar - even more so than Christmas.

Bible Verses for Lent

Philippians 3:10-11 - "I want to know Christ, yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participate in his sufferings, becoming like him in death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.

Joel 2:12-14 - "Even now," declares the Lord, "return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning. Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and compassionate. 

Matthew 6:16-18 - "when you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites...but when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you."

1 Peter 5:6 - Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you

A Prayer for Lent

Join me in prayer for this season of Lent:

Heavenly Father,
Thank you for the gift of this season. Thank you for knowing our hearts and our need for rhythms in our lives, and for drawing us into a deeper communion with you throughout the coming 40 days. 

Lord, it can be disheartening to read on Ash Wednesday that all come from dust, and to dust all return (Ecclesiastes 3:20), yet we know that there is more to our stories. We know that you created man and woman from the dust at the very beginning of time (Genesis 2:7) and that you breathed life into them to transform them into living creatures. We know that you are in the business of resurrection-- your very Son went to the cross to show us that no death is final and that ultimate transformation comes through your gift of salvation. Though we were made from dust, and our bodies will return to dust again, we can live in eternal glory with you through the blood of your Son.

May we remember the gift of salvation in this season...

...read more of our Prayer for Lent

Read more Scriptures for Lent at BibleStudyTools.com

Learn more: Is Lent in the Bible? & When Does Lent Start and End?

Photo credit: ©Thinkstock/czarny_bez

This article is part of our larger Holy Week and Easter resource library centered around the events leading up to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We hope these articles help you understand the meaning and story behind important Christian holidays and dates and encourage you as you take time to reflect on all that God has done for us through his son Jesus Christ!

What Lent and Why is it Celebrated?
When is Lent? When Does Lent Start and End?
What is Ash Wednesday?
What Is Palm Sunday?
What is Maundy Thursday?
What Is Good Friday?

What Is Easter?
What is the Holy Week?
Easter Prayers