History and Meaning of 40 Day Period of Lent

By Jennifer Balaska, Public Domain via Creative Commons

On Wednesday over a billion Catholics from around the world celebrated Ash Wednesday, the official beginning of Lent, with most having no idea of the history or meaning behind the celebration. While Catholicism seems to be the religion that most people identify Lent and Ash Wednesday with, the truth of the matter is that many other Christian religions celebrate this holy day as well, including Lutherans, Anglicans, Methodists, and Presbyterians. Many Christians may have an idea about the purpose of Lent, but few understand its origins and true purpose.

A Developing History

While the original purpose of the practice is not known, there are many writings from the third and fourth centuries that speak of a period of fasting leading up to the celebration of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The early practice centered around baptizing new followers on Easter. Christians would fast for the forty days leading up to Easter as a preparation for being baptized. Fasting, in this manner, was seen as an act of “mortification” to reach God. Later, the practice seemed to move from a focus on baptism to a time of repentance for those who “sinned seriously.” Those who fell into this category would perform public penance for the 40 days leading up to Holy Thursday, and would then join the community in a feast to celebrate this Christian holy day.

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

The earliest documentation related to Lent dates back to the third century. In a letter by Dionysius, the Bishop of Alexandria, to the Basilides, he outlines the length of the fasting period leading up to the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection, setting the time at seven days. At the Council of Nicea, convened by the Emperor Constantine in 325 CE, a 40-day Lenten period was permanently established. To that point there were variations in duration for the length of the fasting period, but the Council established 40-days as the standard moving forward. The Council confirmed that early on Christians were baptized on Easter and the period leading up to Easter was a time of preparation for new followers.

While the Council of Nicea established the time duration for Lent, the decision has not ended interpretation related to the 40-day period. In the Eastern Orthodox Church fasting only occurs on the weekdays, thus Lent lasts for 8 weeks leading up to Palm Sunday. In the Western Churches, Saturday is included in the fast, which reduces the Lenten period by one week.

The Duration Begins to Be Established

The duration of Lent is only one issue related to holy period. Many throughout history have sought to establish when the period would begin. Athanasius, the Bishop of Alexandria from 328 to 373, wrote that Lent was to begin on the fifth day of Phamenoth, or March 1 according to our current calendars. This would make it so Holy Week, which lasts seven days, would end on Pharmuthi (April 11). This was the custom in the Holy Roman Empire for centuries.

Today, Lent is reconciled according to the date of the Easter celebration. According to Catholic.com, Easter is the first Sunday following the first full moon on or after the vernal equinox. The vernal equinox occurs on March 21, according to the calendar used today. This is how the Jewish Passover is determined as well (with the exception that Easter always occurs on a Sunday in most Christian faiths). Lent then goes backwards 40 days from this date, excluding Sundays, which are counted as feast days. On Sundays, Catholics are not expected to fast. The Eastern Church goes back 40 days, excluding Saturdays and Sundays.

Until the seventh century, the first day of Lent always began on a Sunday, but in 601 AD, Pope Gregory (the Great) changed the start to begin on a Wednesday, and implemented the removal of Sundays as part of the 40-days of Lent. Sundays became feast days. He then called the beginning of Lent Ash Wednesday. It appears that Gregory was also responsible for the practice of marking people’s foreheads with crosses made of ashes as a symbol of repentance. According to CatholicCulture.org, the practice was equated to the Old Testament custom of wearing sackcloth and ashes during a period of sorrow and repentance.

Up until the 800s, most Christians were not allowed to eat anything during Lent, with the exception of Sundays. Water was the only substance allowed to be consumed during the period of fasting. Sometime during the 800s this practice changed, and Christians were allowed to eat after 3 pm. Changes to the fasting custom continually changed over time. In the 1400s people could eat after noon. In 1966, during the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church restricted fasting to Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.

The practice of abstaining from meat first came into practice during the 800s. Meat was considered a food of the wealthy, and so Christians were called to fast from it as a sign of poverty before God. This restriction has been relaxed over the years, and now Catholics must abstain from eating meat only on Fridays.

Many Catholics and other Christian faiths will be celebrating Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent on Wednesday, with very little idea of the history or meaning behind these two celebrations. Hopefully, they will now be a little more informed now.

Featured Image Credit – By Oxh973 – Own work by Jennifer Balaska, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6044659

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