History of Lent

March 2014

Since we are currently in the period of Lent, I thought that it would be fun to discuss this important part of the church calendar.

Lent is a period of approximately 6 weeks, usually numbered from Ash Wednesday through Easter Day. The traditional purpose of Lent is the preparation of the believer through prayer, penance, repentance of sins, almsgiving, atonement and self-denial. Its institutional purpose is heightened in the annual commemoration of Holy Week, marking the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus. The believer is traditionally asked to give up various foods or other luxuries in imitation of Jesus’ period of 40 days in the desert when he was tempted by the Devil. Various denominations count the start of the days differently, and time can vary from 38 to 44 days, but the intention is the same.

The word Lent is of Germanic origin, showing the growing influence of Northern Europe in the Christian church early on, replacing the Latin word Quadragesima, which means fortieth.

Lent originated, like many of the church functions, after the establishment of the Christian Church as the dominant religion in the Roman Empire. There were some at the time who tried to prove its earlier origins, but this was retro-conning backwards to find a justification, and modern scholars almost unanimously agree that the Early Church Fathers knew nothing of this practice.

The period of forty days/hours has significance in the bible, and depending on whom you ask you will get a variety of answers. Other examples are Moses’ forty days on Mount Sinai, Elijah walking to Mount Horeb, forty days of the Flood, etc. Pre-Abrahamic examples include the forty days that Horus was tempted in the desert by his uncle Set. Islam has a similar fast called Ramadan in celebration of the coming of the first verses of the Quran.

Lent was originally only forty hours long, to commemorate the forty hours that it was believed that Jesus was in the tomb. In later years it was expanded to forty days, and additional annual fasts were added.

The prohibition against eating meat (and eating fish on Fridays) was added many, many centuries later, because the vast majority of the population in Europe rarely ever ate meat; their diet consisted mainly of fish, dairy products, and grains. Adding lots of fasting days was useful in the Middle Ages, because food production was poorly handled and very localized. Dispensations could be purchased to get around the restrictions in some areas. St. Thomas Aquinas complained that people eating anything other than fish gave them unnecessary happiness, gave them too much physical energy, and might lead to lust.

In Eastern Europe, Lent is often still strictly observed, but after 1966 the Roman Catholic Church made fasting more of a personal choice, while many Protestant denominations, originally rejecting Catholic practices, have themselves adopted them. Some churches have adopted the idea of helping those less fortunate for whom fasting may be a daily undesired occurrence.

So, in this time of self-reflection, I guess it is up to ones own beliefs as to how one celebrates. I like the idea of helping those who are less fortunate, allow that should be a 365 day event. I have not seen a co-worker come into work wearing their ashes on Ash Wednesday for fifteen years.


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