A History of Lent

Written by: Brian Austin
For me, Lent has always been more of a puzzle than a practice. Forty days of fasting sounded like a long time. A lover of good food who has always associated fasting with eating nothing, I had selfish reasons for not looking closer. I found it baffling as well, that the 40 days actually add up to 46. Is my math that bad, or is it someone else’s error?
The word Lent itself is derived from the Anglo-Saxon words lencten, meaning “Spring,” and lenctentid, which literally means “Springtide,” or “March.”
As early as 203 AD, confusion existed over how one should prepare for Easter. In a translation from Greek to Latin, a 40 hour fast came to be understood as a 40 day fast, a significant change that became firmly established at the council of Nicea in 325 AD.
This preparation time carries remnants of the Jewish celebration of the Passover – fittingly enough, for Jesus was crucified during Passover as “The Lamb of God.” The language has changed from the “unleavened bread” and “bitter herbs” of the Passover meal, yet a surprising number of parallels exist. Shrove Tuesday (Feast or Fat Tuesday March 8, 2011) is celebrated much like the preparation for Passover week, eating everything that will be abstained from in coming days. From that point on, some type of fast or abstinence is practiced in many Christian traditions. Most of these traditions predate Catholic or Protestant designations, although they are preserved predominantly within the Catholic church.
The 40 day fast at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry seems to be the strongest link to the duration of Lent. But Sundays, celebrated by the early Christian church as “Resurrection Day,” continued to be celebration days even through this somber period. In some traditions Sundays are feast days in the midst of the fast. In others, specific abstinence is still practiced, especially from any red meats. Almost all traditions permit fish.
The fast itself is but a small part of the tradition—perhaps not even the most important part. Confession to God and confession and restitution to others shows up repeatedly in ancient and modern writings about any authentic practice of Lent.
What would it do in my life if, as I anticipate the pivotal point in the Christian calendar each year, I intentionally gave 40+ days to preparing my heart, my mind, and even my body, for an intense focus on the sacrificial death of Christ, followed by the triumph of His resurrection? What would it do in the lives of those around me if for 40+ days I actively searched for ways I could bring healing and reconciliation?
Maybe – just maybe – Lent deserves more than a shrug. Just maybe, the early church and more traditional present day churches have it right in choosing to give up something for these 40+ days, while making an extra effort to focus on the One who made Easter a reason to celebrate and THE pivotal point in history.
For further reading, much of it scholarly but still fascinating, go to: