Regardless of what religious tradition you grew up with – there is good reason to understand Lent – especially if you are a practicing Christian – and most especially if you are interested in aligning your faith practices with those of Jesus’ disciples – those with the first-hand contact with Jesus that we’re so dreamily admiring of. The more I learn about Lent – the more I feel drawn into its practice – so in that spirit – here’s some basic information.
Lent – the idea of it – is first mentioned in a letter written by Iraneous of Lyons who lived from 130-202. Iraneous was a disciple of Polycarp’s – who was a disciple of the Apostle John – so there’s as short a distance between what Iraneous understood about the life of Jesus and His Apostles as anyone in the world at that time had. Iraneous wrote in his letter about the differences between Christendom in the East and the West. The letter is recorded by the historian Eusebius.
” “The dispute is not only about the day, but also about the actual character of the fast. Some think that they ought to fast for one day, some for two, others for still more; some make their ‘d
ay’ last 40 hours on end. Such variation in the observance did not originate in our own day, but very much earlier, in the time of our forefathers” (Eusebius, History of the Church, V, 24). When Rufinus translated this passage from Greek into Latin, the punctuation made between “40” and “hours” made the meaning to appear to be “40 days, twenty-four hours a day.” ”
The phrase “our forefathers” was an expression reserved exclusively to refer to the Apostles. So – it would seem that while Iraneous is conceding differences in calculating the date of Easter, and how long to fast for Easter – there was no question at all that this was the norm, or that this practice came from the Apostles, Jesus’ hand-picked rag-tag band of disciples, themselves. The number 40 – appears over and over again in the Bible – 40 days of rain in the flood, 40 days Moses fasted on Mount Sinai before the Lord, 40 days and nights Elijah walked to the Mountain of the Lord, 40 days that Jesus fasted in the wilderness – and – the traditional belief that Jesus was dead for 40 hours. Counting 40 days of Lent is a bit tricky – Sundays don’t count – as they’re already holy-days.
Early on – it seems that fasting in preparation for Lent was part education-season for new converts – who were preparing to be baptized Easter weekend.
Lent was also a season of penance and identification with the sufferings of Christ – to focus on humility and gratitude. This humility is captured with the association of ashes used on Ash Wednesday – ashes were used as a sign of repentance – like Job who sat in “ashes” (Job 2:8). So at various points in church history – Christians fasted during the day for 40 days – eating only after a certain hour in the afternoon/evening; or Christians essentially ate vegan for the time of Lent – and began their fasts by being symbolically covered with ashes. By the Council of Nicea in 325 AD observing Lent with a 40 day fast of some sort was the Christian norm. So – so sum up – it seems that Lent was observed with fasts and penance for the purpose of converting, repenting, and for renewing a humble and grateful demeanor towards God.
By the way – about the name “Lent” – originally in most languages was called something related to the number forty. For instance in Greek it was called “Quadragesima” which meant “fortieth”. It’s still called fortieth – or “Cuaresma” in Spanish. It became “Lent” in English as a reference to it taking place at a time of the year when the days “lente” or old English for “lengthened” I doubt any one can say for certain why in Germanic languages (like English and Dutch) the weeks running up to Easter are named for spring instead of 40 – as is the case in most of the romance languages.