When more than 2 billion Christians around the world begin observing Lent this week, they will do so in a variety of ways.
Ash Wednesday, which falls on Feb. 18 this year, will mark the beginning of the Lenten season, which consists of the 40 days leading up to Easter.
Traditionally, Lent is seen as a time of reflection in the Christian community. Those who observe the season must alter themselves and their habits to reflect on the true meaning of Easter and the promise of Christ’s rebirth.
In the Episcopal denomination, Lent actually begins the day before Ash Wednesday, with the observance of Shrove Tuesday.
“Shrove Tuesday is typically a persevered day of preparation for entry into self-denial or self-discipline,” said Covington First United Methodist Church Pastor Douglas Gilreath.
The Imposition of Ashes is observed across several denominations of Christianity and has its roots in Genesis 3:19. It reminds mankind “For dust you are and to dust you shall return.”
After Ash Wednesday, Episcopalians, similar to many other Christians, may embark on a series of tasks or patterns of altered behavior intended to help them better contemplate the meaning of Easter.
In the Catholic church, abstinence from meat is observed on Ash Wednesday and on Good Friday (the Friday before Easter Sunday) by all Catholics ages 14 and older.
“Lent is a season for prayer, fasting and almsgiving,” said Patricia DeJarnett, an official in charge of ceremonies with the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta, in a bulletin to priests and deacons. “In order to see that our preparation for Easter has a communal, and not just an individual dimension, the church gives us certain norms for a common Lenten observance.”
In 2011, more than 50 percent of the world’s Christian population identified as Catholic, according to the Pew Research Center.
According to the Archdiocese of Atlanta, fasting is to be observed on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday by all Catholics between 18 and 59 years of age, except for those who are “sick, pregnant, or nursing, or whose health would be adversely affected by fasting or abstinence.”
In the Episcopal church, parishioners aren’t required to fast, but they are encouraged to either remove something from their lives or take something on in Lent’s 40-day course.
The Methodist church recommends “introspection, meditation” and “disciplines like fasting and prayer” to help people prepare spiritually for Easter Sunday.
When the pace of life feels overwhelming, focusing on the meaning of Lent may help individuals relearn their place in the universe.
Whether it is observed through meditation, fasting or contemplation, the Lenten season is a time to get back to the true basics of life.