What is Lent?

Since becoming a Christian in college I have not attended a church that observed Lent (to my recollection), at least not while they were observing it.  I have been active primarily in non-mainline Presbyterian, Baptist, or Independent circles and I gather that these traditions generally do not practice Lent and its attendant days and rituals.  Even in seminary (I went to a non-denominational seminary, but most of the students were in the conservative arm of the Presbyterian church), I recall hearing very little about this season of the church calendar.

So when my church here in South Royalton began to talk about “Ash Wednesday” and Lent back in 2014, I had some homework to do.  Thankfully others in the church have helped.

It appears that the exact origin of the practice is unknown though some ancient documents suggest the practice goes back almost to the time of the apostles (if not all the way back to them).  Various writings from the 3rd and 4th century speak of a season of fasting prior to the celebration of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Eusebius records a letter in his History of the Church from St. Irenaeus (d. 203) to Pope St. Victor I, commenting on the differences of Easter practice that existed between the Eastern and Western church.  Therein St. Irenaeus makes reference to the fact that a season of fasting had been celebrated in preparation for Easter since the time of “our forefathers” (making reference to the apostles).  1  Today this season of fasting and self-denial lasts forty days in most traditions where it is celebrated (for a long time there was actually a period of 63 days in which preparations for Easter were made beginning with what is called “Septuagesima Sunday“.

The choice of 40 days seems to have stemmed from the story told to us in the Gospels of Luke, Mark, and Matthew, where Jesus fasted for 40 days in the desert, being tempted by the Devil. Those who participated in Lent were to fast, as Jesus had, for 40 days, and then return to the community to celebrate the Easter feast and/or to be baptized. 2

Forty days are marked by Lent from Ash Wednesday to Holy Saturday.  Because Sundays have always been marked as occasions to celebrate the resurrection of Christ, we do not include Sundays in the 40 day count. The other days are days marked by special prayer, fasting, self discipline in striving against sin, and sacrificial giving. The Church has always prescribed the three-fold discipline of prayer, fasting and almsgiving (Matthew 6:1-24) as strong weapons in the fight against self-centeredness and indulgence.  Forty is a sacred number being made up of 4, the symbol of the earth, multiplied by 10, the symbol of the complete judgement of God. Forty days marked the deluge which cleansed the earth in the time of Noah; forty years the wandering of the Jews in the wilderness to purge their unbelief; forty days the fasting and warfare of Jesus in the wilderness against Satan. 3

If you want to learn a bit more about the Christian calendar and seasons like Lent, Pastor Josh wrote a brief article for the Christian Research Institute last Spring (2019) and did a Postmodern Realities Podcast with them as well, which you can listen to here.

  1. Fr. William Saunders, “History of Lent,” http://www.catholiceducation.org/articles/religion/re0527.html.  Accessed on 3/5/2014.
  2. Robert Pannier, “Catholics: History and Meaning of Ash Wednesday and Lent,” http://guardianlv.com/2014/03/catholics-history-and-meaning-of-ash-wednesday-and-lent/.  Accessed on 3/4/2014.
  3. I am indebted to Russell Rohloff of Bethel, Vermont, for the insights and wording in this last paragraph.
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