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Introduction to Lent 

The date of Easter is determined by the Paschal Full Moon, and can fall anywhere between the 21 March and the 27 April. Ash Wednesday can therefore fall between 3 February (the day after Candlemas) and 12 March. This year Ash Wednesday is fairly early – on 14 February.

The day before Ash Wednesday is Shrove Tuesday, traditionally a day for consuming rich ingredients (eg for pancakes), in order to empty the cupboards for the Lenten fast. Shrove Tuesday is also the time of Mardi Gras celebrations.

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent.

Liturgical colour purple for preparation.

Its date is determined by the date of Easter. Excluding six Sundays (the five Sundays of Lent and Palm Sunday), it is the first of 40 days before Easter Day. The tradition of fasting during this period goes back to Jesus’s 40 day fast in the wilderness, which immediately preceded his three year public ministry.

The dual themes of Ash Wednesday are sinfulness and mortality; and these are marked when a sign of the cross is made on the forehead in ash, and these words are spoken: ‘Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return. Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.’

The ash comes from the previous year’s palm crosses. This reflects the cycle of life, death and renewal.


Liturgical colour purple for preparation.

In the modern calendar, Lent is the only truly penitential season. It shares purple with Advent as a liturgical colour, but Advent is increasingly seen as a period of preparation rather than penance. Consequently many churches display flowers in Advent, but not in Lent.

As Sundays are not counted amongst the forty fast or abstinence days, it is theoretically possible to break one’s fast or abstinence on each Sunday (Sundays are seen as days of resurrection). However, many find this makes fasting or abstinence harder.

The two days on which many Christians in our part of the world do tend to break their fast or abstinence are Mothering Sunday, or (more common amongst Catholics) St Patrick’s Day (transferable, but usually 17 March).

Mothering Sunday, the fourth Sunday in Lent, like many other feasts (eg Christmas, Easter, All Saints/All Souls) owes its position in the calendar to pre-Christian celebrations. In the sixteenth century, it was called Laetere Sunday, and was a feast to honour the Virgin Mary and Mother Church. People returned to their family homes and attended mass in the local church or cathedral; in later times domestic servants were given the day off to visit their mothers.

The lightening of Lenten abstinence is a well-established tradition on this day, marked by the baking of Simnel cakes.

The fifth Sunday of Lent, also known as Passion Sunday (from the Greek verb, pascho, to suffer), focuses on the events of Holy Week in Jerusalem.