The History of Lent
Fr Zenon Monka
The oldest Christian feast and the only feast in the first three centuries was Easter - Passover, which means Jesus Christ's passing through suffering and death to resurrection, i.e. new life in glory. Christians were preparing to celebrate this great feast very thoroughly. The time of preparation was different in various epochs and regions of the Christian world. The oldest form of preparation for the Passover was fast. People fasted two days preceding Easter, i.e. on Good Friday and Holy Saturday. This fast, which lasted 40 hours, was called Passover fast because it was connected with the Passover of Christ and its worthy celebrations. A period of long 'Passover fast' was developed from this early pattern of fasting. At first this period lasted a week, the last week before Easter (it was in Egypt in the 3rd century). In 325 the Council of Nicaea defined fast as forty days. The Western Church knew the basic form of 40 days of fasting, although not the final form, as preparation before Easter, in the 4th century. The days of fasting were counted from the Holy Thursday backwards so that the beginning of fasting fell on the sixth Sunday before Easter, i.e. the first Sunday of Lent. Rome took over the forty days of fasting from the Eastern Church. Since Sundays were not days of fasting - as weekly Passover - there were 34 weekdays of fasting and after adding Good Friday and Holy Saturday it was 36 days of actual fasting. At the turn of the 6th and 7th centuries the missing four days were added in order to have 40 days' fast. Thus the beginning of Lent was moved from Sunday to Wednesday, hence called Ash Wednesday. The number 40 appears in the Bible and has a symbolic meaning. It refers to old events like the forty days of flood preceding the Covenant between God and Noah; 40 years of Israel's wandering on the desert to the Promised Land; 40 days of Moses' staying on the mountain of Sinai where he received the stone tablets of the law; Prophet Elijah fled 40 days to Horeb, being afraid of Jezebel, wife of Ahab, king of Israel. But above all the symbolic number of 40 days refers to the period of Christ's preparation for his Passover in the wilderness, a period of loneliness, prayer, and fight with Satan (cf. Mathew 4:1-11). This struggle resulted in the final victory of Christ over Satan, sin and death as well as his glorious resurrection.
The Liturgy of Lent focuses on three themes, which constantly appear in the prayers and biblical readings of this period. They are: baptism, penance and the Passion of the Lord. These themes appeared very early. They are also historically well-grounded. Lent was the time of direct preparation of catechumens before baptism on the Paschal Eve and the time of reconciliation of public sinners with the Church through 'arduous baptism' of penance (confession), which was to take place on the morning of Holy Thursday. The liturgy stressed the presence of catechumens by suitable readings and prayers. When the institution of catechumenate and the practice of public penance disappeared gradually the meditation of Christ's suffering and death developed and became the subject of passion preaching in the 13th century. A special role in stressing the Lord's Passion should be attributed to Irish and Scottish missionaries who conducted folk missions in the 17th and 18th centuries. They used Lent to prepare the faithful for Easter confession. Their vivid descriptions of Christ's Passion were supported by Lenten Psalms, which originated at the beginning of the 18th century and the Way of the Cross, which was introduced in the Church at the beginning of the 18th century by the Franciscan Order. The development of Lenten liturgy resulted in separate formulas for every weekday. They have remained in the missal up till now. They enrich the liturgy in the theological aspect. Each one is a magnificent biblical catechesis containing many ethical directions for Christians. In the past they prepared the catechumens for baptism. At the same time they were instructions for the penitents so that they could repent and avoid their sins they did penance for. Today, these texts are for all believers the words of encouragement to live in the grace of Baptism and follow its all obligations. They also encourage living in the grace and spirit of penance and reconciliation. They tell us to avoid sin, which is an offence of God, and to avoid everything, which leads to sin.