• For Christians, Lent is a time for prayer, reflection, fasting and almsgiving. (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
The Christian tradition of Lent is shrouded in mystery for many, but the 40-day period of abstinence, prayer and reflection is still as relevant as ever. Here's everything you need to know about Lenten.
Mariam Digges

28 Mar 2017 - 5:41 PM  UPDATED 29 Mar 2017 - 9:55 AM

If you’re a Christian, or know someone who is, you’ve probably already been asked what you’re “giving up” for Lent, or you've asked the question yourself.

While abstinence certainly plays a role, the 40-day Lenten period in the annual lead up to Easter is not all about curbing vices; it’s also a time for reflection, fasting, prayer and almsgiving.

“For us in the Christian community, Lent is a time to examine putting our faith into action,” says Anne McGuire, a Sister of Mercy and Head of Mission at Caritas Australia

“Our essential call as Christians is to be Good News to the poor. And so, prayer, fasting and almsgiving enable us to look at our own lives and to start thinking about the injustices in the world.”

For Catholics and Protestants, Ash Wednesday - held 46 days before Easter Sunday - marks the start of the Lenten calendar and the official beginning of the long-term fast. The Lenten period is often referred to as 40 days long, excluding the six Sundays throughout it. The idea was built around the 40 days that Jesus spent in the desert to “to give himself a bit of a shot in the arm,” explains Sister McGuire.

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Sacrificing our favourite things

Over the years, people have focused their efforts more on giving something up for Lenten. From kids quitting lollies to adults abstaining from their daily cup of coffee or glass of wine, sacrifices often turn to giving up daily vices. It’s still in line with the Church’s teachings of interrupting the usual comforts of life to practice charity, but there are other ways to participate in Lenten, too.

“We invite them [kids] to perhaps, instead of buying a drink with their money, that they drink water,” says Sister McGuire. The kids would then give those few dollars to a charitable cause, such as Caritas Australia’s Project Compassion.

And if you’re an adult who’s going to be kicking a vice to the curb, then it’s not just your spirit that will be cleansed.

“Alcohol, chocolate and meat are the things people have said to me they’re giving up for Lent,” tells nutritionist Lisa Snowdon, founder of Vibrant Nutrition in Sydney.

For us in the Christian community, Lent is a time to examine putting our faith into action.

“It’s always good to have time off alcohol; it reduces your calorie intake and gives your liver a break.”

Sugar and chocolate are other popular vices that are dropped during the 40 days.

“Getting rid of excess sugar, like the type found in milk chocolate, can get rid of sugar cravings altogether,” Snowdon says, adding that your body’s dependence on those foods will also be interrupted, and fruit and vegetables will taste so much sweeter.

And rather than diving deep into excess come Easter, Snowdon suggests savouring smaller, higher quality portions, like one small dark chocolate egg rather than crates of the sweeter milk variety.

Giving back

Sister McGuire invites Christians who are taking part this year to rethink their “footprint” and peel back the way they live.

“I’ve lived through the Cold War but never noticed such naked greed in the world [as there is today],” she says.

“It’s always good to have time off alcohol; it reduces your calorie intake and gives your liver a break.”

Adding a spiritual practice to your day during Lent, such as prayer, giving to charity, or performing community service, are other ways of participating.

“During Lent, we take the time to reinvigorate our thinking and our lifestyle more than anything so that through prayer and fasting and almsgiving, our thoughts turn to the poor,” Sister McGuire says.

With abstinence also comes newfound discipline and of course, money saved – which can then be donated to charitable causes. Heavy wine or coffee drinkers stand to benefit the most, says Snowdon.

“If you’re drinking four-to-six cups of coffee a day and you reduce that to one or two when you come back on the other side [of Lent], then that’s a positive outcome."

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