Derived from the old English word for “lengthen” (as do the days in spring), Lent is the 40-day period of prayer, penitence and pondering before Easter.
Starting on Ash Wednesday, the seventh Wednesday before Easter, it commemorates Christ’s period of deprivation and sacrifice in the desert and recalls the events leading to his crucifixion.
Strict observers of Lententide may observe periods of fasting or at least abstain from festivities, certain foods and other indulgences, giving the money saved to charity.
Lent’s liturgical colour is a sombre purple, recalling the royal robe the Roman soldiers mockingly placed on Jesus.
On the day before Ash Wednesday, Christians would go to their confessor to be shriven.
After being absolved (shriven, or shrove), they would mark the day by indulging in—for the last time before Easter—richer foods given up for Lent, such as eggs, fats, sugar, milk, meat and fish. With the addition of some flour, a batch of pancakes made a thrifty catch-all for a household’s pre-Lenten store of sugar, milk and eggs.
As for pancake races, legend has it that a 15th-century woman was frying pancakes when she heard the tolling of the shriving bell. Off she raced to confession—apron, pan, pancakes and all.
Rooted in Old Testament precedent (Job 42:6), ashes are worn as symbols of sin, sorrow and repentance. Lenten ashes are made by burning palm crosses blessed in the previous year’s Palm Sunday celebrations and are sometimes mixed with anointing oil. As presiders place ashes in the shape of a cross on the foreheads of congregants, they say, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” These words remind us of human mortality, ephemerality and of our origin, with God breathing life into dust. For some, the ashen cross may also symbolise the way Christ’s crucifixion replaced Old Testament burnt offerings as atonement for human sin.
The stations of the cross are a traditional Lenten observance.