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Lent (Ash Wednesday)

Most of us had not even heard of Lent until the movie Forty Days and Forty Nights hit Indian cinemas, and many of us still don't know what it's all about, or when it occurs. 

What is Lent?

Lent is the 40-day period of fasting and abstinence observed by Catholics around the world. This period begins on a Wednesday, which is known as Ash Wednesday, immediately after Mardi Gras, and ends 40 days later (excluding Sundays), on Easter Sunday. This year, 2003, Lent began on the 5th of March, and will end on 19th April. Sundays are not included in Lent, because Jesus was resurrected on a Sunday. Sundays are thus regarded as days of gaiety and celebration; not of mourning and abstinence. Fridays during this period are regarded to be days of penance, because Jesus was crucified on a Friday. Lent essentially signifies 40 days of penance leading up to his crucifixion. 

Why forty days?

Moses stayed on the Mountain of God forty days, Jesus prayed and fasted in the wilderness forty days, Elijah reached the cave where he had a vision, after forty days of travel. Hence, the period of forty days has great religious significance amongst Catholics, and amongst various other cultures. According to the Mohammadan Prophet, whoever gets drunk, will have his prayers rejected for forty days. Sufis have shrines, inside which they pray and meditate for forty days, and which are called forty-day rooms. Many Indians, which include Hindus, Muslims and Jains, have fasting periods that last forty days. Similarly, Jesus was resurrected forty hours after his crucifixion. He was crucified at noon on Friday, and came back at 4 a.m. on Sunday. Forty is a traditional number of spiritual testing, in various cultures. Essentially, forty days of Lent signify Christians 'joining' Jesus on his forty-day retreat in the wilderness. 

Why is abstinence recommended? 

Abstinence is recommended by all religions in some form or the other, as it is believed to helps a person grow spiritually. In addition, it also strengthens will power and builds character. If a person habitually fasts, such a person will be less likely to give in to harmful or sinful temptations that may cross his path.  

What do people usually abstain from during Lent?

Amongst the more religious, Lent is regarded as a period of fasting, penance and prayers. Earlier on, it used to be customary to abstain from meat during this period. However, things are more relaxed now. For most Catholics, there are no specific rules and regulations regarding abstinence, though a person is encouraged to abstain from at least one pleasure-giving activity. Generally, people choose to abstain from certain foods such as non-vegetarian food, alcohol, cigarettes or sex. Some people choose to fast (skip a meal) everyday during this time, or on the Fridays falling in the season of Lent. Ash Wednesday and all Fridays during Lent are days of fasting. 

Why is the first day of Lent called Ash Wednesday?

To commemorate the beginning of Lent, the pastor usually marks the forehead of Christians with a cross, by using ash, to remind them that they are created from dust, and will return to dust. This ritual echoes the burial words, "Ashes to ashes; dust to dust." Ashes serve as a reminder of our mortality and our need to repent before this life is over.

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