Why Christians Give Up Things for Lent - The History Behind Religious Event

Lent, when Christians fast or forego certain vices for more than six weeks before Easter, falls on February 22 this year.

The Lenten period first emerged shortly after the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD and even the earliest observances of Lent focused on the practice of fasting, eating one meal a day. The first day of Lent falls on Ash Wednesday.

Jon Balserak, senior lecturer in the Department of Religion and Theology at Bristol University in the U.K., said that the period—which originally spanned 40 days—during which Lent is practised each year arises from the Bible. The 40 days varied from region to region, and denomination to denomination, with some periods including weekends, and others excluding Sundays. Either way, there would be one meal a day after 3 p.m. with no meat, fish or dairy.

"Jesus was in the wilderness for forty days being tempted by the devil," Balserak told Newsweek. "Moses spent forty years tending flocks in the desert. The number forty is, then, a significant one."

Pope on Palm Sunday
Pope Francis leads the Palm Sunday mass in St. Peter square, at the Vatican on April 10, 2022. Palm Sunday falls on the Sunday before Easter, the culmination of Lent, which begins on February 22 this year. Filippo Monteforte/Getty/AFP

The practice of Lent began among early Christians, probably in the fourth century. However, some records indicate that a pre-Easter season of fasting had been in practice since the second century, according to groundworkonline.

"It was often a time of fasting applied to those who were new converts to the Christian faith," Balserak added. "During this time, they were to reflect on their sins prior to being baptized at Easter. As Christianity spread, Lent spread with it. During the early centuries of the Christian church they were developing their own yearly practices, adopting in some cases the structure associated with the principal feasts of Judaism."

Lent was inserted into the yearly Christian liturgy, following Easter, he added. Pope Gregory I, who died in 604, regularized the time and character of the Lenten period. When it was regularized, Lent began 46 days before Easter with a ceremony of ash, and it didn't include Sundays.

By the 800s, the strictness of the fast began to relax. Instead, Christians gave up certain temptations, such as sugary foods, to test their self-discipline and ability to "sacrifice," as Jesus Christ sacrificed when he went to the desert to pray and fast for 40 days before later dying on the cross. Other examples of things Christians give up for lent are swearing and social media.

"It is common today for people to give up things that they treasure, as a way of detaching themselves from this world and worldly pleasures," said Balserak. "Christians regard themselves as citizens of heaven and, thus, as pilgrims on the earth.

"Lent, then, serves as a time to reflect on one's own mortality and sins. It's a time for reflection and recommitment and, as a way of pursuing those aims, people will often give up something they treasure. It can be something small like eating chocolate or it can be more serious sacrifices."