As someone who was raised in an Evangelical church, I was not originally introduced to Lent. After much reflection I have found that this period is very helpful in producing a focus on Christ and His sacrifice. As mentioned in a previous post, “we should participate in Lent not out of superstition or thoughtless ritual. Lent ought to be a time of contemplative thought upon Christ and His salvific mercy.” But regardless of one’s stance on Lent, it is helpful to find its original roots. For those who wonder where this came from (including myself) I was able to find a good explanation of its origins.
The History of Lent
There is no date designated for the beginning of the observance of what is now known as Lent. Nevertheless, references in several different historical texts reveal that this tradition connected to the Easter season goes back to at least the second century. In fact, some scholars believe the crucifixion and resurrection may have been formally marked and celebrated by the apostles and their early followers in Lenten-type worship rituals. If this is the case, then Lent took root in the years just after the first Easter.
Irenaeus seems to verify this early beginning for Lent in a letter to Pope Victor I in the late second century. Irenaeus wrote that he had witnessed Christians from different areas celebrating the resurrection of Christ in a wide variety of ways, observing, “Some think that they ought to fast for one day, some for two, others for still more; some make their ‘day’ last forty 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.”
This report clearly suggests the observance of Easter was long established by the year 200, and an early form of Lent was also already bring practiced. That many church leaders of the period called the twelve disciples “the forefathers” indicates this practice had a solid link to the actual beginnings of Christianity. This this custom predates any official church ruling on the subject by at least two centuries.
Even during the initial observance of the time leading up to Easter, the church had already embraced a threefold purpose for the observation. The first came from the early church custom of baptizing new converts on the anniversary of Christ’s resurrection. These converts were to set aside time leading up to Easter to study what it meant to be a Christian. The classes taught by church leaders were very serious and the instruction much more detailed than that taught in most modern congregations. The second element of preparing for Easter focused on Christians turning inward and looking at their own shortcomings. This self-judgment was a part of searching for ways to put sin behind them and better emulate the Lord in their personal and public lives.
The final element of the annual observance dealt with finding the lost sheep and convincing them to come back to the flock. Church members sought out those who had strayed from their congregations and offered them the chance to once again be a part of a Christian fellowship.
While the threefold worship focus of the period leading up to Easter was fairly consistent throughout the early Christian world, the time these observances took place and their length still varied widely from region to region. Church leadership recognized this issue and felt the practice would have more meaning if it were uniformly observed and practiced. But because Christianity was still not considered a legal religion, they were powerless to even offer suggestions. In 313, when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, church leaders decided that standards of worship practices should be put in place.
The 325 Council of Nicaea is best remembered for establishing official dates to observe both Christmas and Easter. At the same time the council also established rules for the observance of the weeks leading up to Easter. The council’s decrees emphasized a forty-day period of fasting. This forty-day period was likely chosen because of the significance of the number forty in both Christ’s life and biblical history. Forty was the number of days Christ fasted during his temptation by Satan in the wilderness. Moses had observed forty days of fasting and praying during the time he was given the Ten Commandments. Elijah once fasted for forty days and forty nights, and Noah watched it rain for the same period of time.
The people of Israel wandered for forty years in the wilderness. So the early church considered forty a sacred number and therefore considered it worthy of being employed as the countdown to the holiest of holidays. Still, even with the forty days in place and a time set aside for Easter, church leaders were constantly bombarded with questions about the specifics of the observance. The most common problems dealt with what could be eaten and what the Christian definition of fasting was. After about a century of various churches’ applying different rules to the forty days leading up to Easter, the church hierarchy more fully defined how this period of time was to be observed….
In the late sixth century, Pope Gregory finally gave the forty days of fasting and remembrance a name. It is thought he titled this time “Lent” because of the Anglo-Saxon word leneten, meaning “spring” or the time when the year lengthens. This seemed to naturally tie in with the period of the year when Easter was celebrated. While Gregory would have been familair with this Anglo-Saxon term, he might have also taken the name Lent from other languages of the period that had similar words meaning “to fast.” Either way, more than five centuries after the tradition began, Gregory finally gave it a name. Over time, other facets of Lent were also given specific titles….
Today, while it is practiced much differently than it was eighteen hundred years ago, Lent is an important facet of the Easter season for hundreds of millions around the globe. Many denominations can even claim an unbroken line of observing Lent going back almost to the time of Christ. Many other Christian groups that for centuries ignored the forty-day period leading up to Easter now recognize the historical significance of Lent and are incorporating certain facets of the tradition into their Easter customs. More so than at any time in the past five centuries, Lent appears to be gaining popularity and acceptance.
Since its beginnings, Lent has been a time to reconsider individual faith, to rededicate oneself to that faith, and to be thankful for the gift of eternal life given on the first Easter. Therefore, no matter the extent to which Lent is embraced in individual congregations, the goal of this season is one that should be a part of every Christian’s preparation for Easter.