A Short Version of the Long History of Lent
Feb 1, 2018 · Christopher Hunt
As a fairly recent student of the history of Lent, I wondered, “How can I tell a succinct story of Lent?” in the context of the vast history of the Christian Church, spanning nearly two millennia, with all its schisms, reformations, counter-reformations, and revivals. It has definitely not been an easy task, but I hope this overview is a helpful primer for those looking to learn more.
Beginning about six weeks before Easter, Lent is a time traditionally set aside for fasting, prayer, and reflection in preparation to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is one of the most enduring seasons in the Christian liturgical calendar with some elements dating to perhaps earlier than the second century. While observed for centuries by Catholic, Orthodox, Lutheran, Anglican, Episcopal, and Methodist Christians (and certainly others), Lenten traditions and practices have evolved over time. Yet, in spite of a turbulent church history, to say nothing of the ebb and flow of human migration, the rise of kingdoms, the decline of empires, the essence of Lent remains largely unchanged from its earliest history. In recent years, Lent has seen a renewal among evangelical Christians who have been historically wary of some of its trappings.
So, how to tell the short version of a very long history? Let’s answer a couple of key questions to find out. Where did Lent come from, and how has it changed over the centuries?
The origins and early history of Lent
Historians generally agree that the 40-day period before Easter, known as Lent, emerged shortly following the Council of Nicea in 325 AD. Earliest observances of Lent seem to have focused particularly on the practice of fasting. Council records suggest that the fast applied at first mainly to new converts as a period of repentance and reflection before baptism at Easter. In any case, Lent quickly became a general practice churchwide. The actual 40-day period varied region-to-region, even church-to-church; some including weekends, some not; some fasting Sundays, others not. But in every case, the fast was strict: one meal a day after 3 PM with no meat, fish, or dairy. It was Pope Gregory I (590 - 604) who finally regularized the period of the fast churchwide, to begin on a Wednesday 46 days before Easter with a ceremony of ash, and not to include Sundays, which were perennial days of celebration.
Other historical records indicate that a pre-Easter season of fasting, had actually been in practice already, as far back as the second century, and perhaps even earlier. In “History of Lent,” Father William Saunders writes that early church father, St. Irenaeus (c. 130 - 202), in a letter to Pope St. Victor, mentioned a dispute about the number of days for the pre-Easter fast. Irenaeus noted that such “variation in observance did not originate in our own day, but very much earlier, in the time of our forefathers." Irenaeus himself was a third generation disciple after the Apostles, so his dating of lenten fasting back to the time of his “forefathers” establishes it as a practice from the very earliest days of the church. Irenaeus’ letter references the idea of a fast lasting 40 days before Easter, strongly suggesting the concept predated Irenaeus’ own time. Jesus fasting 40 days and 40 nights in the desert to prepare for his public ministry is thought to be the primary inspiration for such a timeframe.
Following Nicea, Lenten practices remained essentially unchanged for centuries. However, by the 800s, the strictness of the fast began to relax. By the 1400s, Christians had begun eating the one meal earlier in the day, and later began to add a smaller meal to keep up their strength for work. Eventually, the one-meal restriction was lifted altogether, and new practices emerged, like the idea of giving up some luxury or need as a personal sacrifice for the season. Over time, “giving something up” became the centerpiece of Lent.
The post-Reformation Protestant critique of Lent
The emergence of various new Christian movements during the Protestant Reformation dramatically affected the tradition of Lent. While some Protestants continued to observe Lent, such as the Lutherans, some like the newly emerged Calvinists criticized the annual rite, claiming there was no scriptural basis for it. They condemned Lent as “man’s” tradition and a works-based vanity. Writing in 1536, John Calvin charged that Lenten practices were not a true imitation of Christ. Jesus kept the laws of Torah throughout his life, and fasted at appropriate times. He fasted 40 days to prepare for his public ministry and to testify that his gospel was from God. Calvin argued that Jesus taught no specific times of fasting. Lent “was therefore merely false zeal, replete with superstition, which set up a fast under the title and pretext of imitating Christ…” (IV.12.20., p. 760). A century later, Puritan theologian John Owen critiqued the Roman church for the Lenten practices of mortifying the flesh, the self-denial of giving something up. Owen charged that Lent called people more to “mortification” for its own sake, to count as righteousness, than to actual belief in the all-sufficient work of a Savior. “The truth is, they neither know what it is to believe nor what mortification itself intends...Such men know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God” (p. 290).
Considering the excesses of the Catholic Church in the years leading up to the explosion of the Reformation, the reformers’ wariness of works-based, or showy, practices is understandable. Luther, Calvin, and many other reformers, confronted many notions of the Catholic Church, such as the selling of indulgences, Purgatory, the Virgin Mary, the Pope, and the intercession of the saints. They relied upon the scriptures alone to understand God’s plan of salvation. For many of them and their progeny in the faith, Lent smacked of righteousness by works.
As evangelicalism rose in the 18th and 19th centuries, the biblical critique of Lent sharpened. The great evangelist Charles Spurgeon summed up the evangelical distrust of Lent with these words from 1885: “It is as much our duty to reject the traditions of men, as to observe the ordinances of the Lord. We ask concerning every rite and rubric, ‘Is this a law of the God of Jacob?’ and if it be not clearly so, it is of no authority with us, who walk in Christian liberty.”
Lent in More Recent Days and a Renewal Among Protestants
Lent continued to evolve in practice in the centuries following the Reformation. In the Lutheran Church, Lent remained an important part of the lectionary, but was fully voluntary with regard to individual observance, whereas in the Catholic Church it remained a “Sacred Tradition,” with the force of church law behind it.
But over the years, Lent has become less strict in almost every western tradition. In the Catholic Church, for example, the number of obligatory fasting days decreased incrementally from six days a week to three, and then eventually, to just two in the whole season of Lent: Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. The well known “fish on Friday” tradition began in the United States in 1966 when the Pope affirmed the abstinence from “flesh” on Fridays. In every tradition, however, the act of “giving something up” has remained strong. For all of these changes, though, the tradition of Lent is still largely recognizable to what it was nearly 2,000 years ago.
In recent years, Lent has resurged in importance among mainline Protestant churches and has even seen renewal among Protestants. In a time that some call the “post-Christian era,” many evangelicals have gained a new appreciation for the Church Liturgical Calendar, and for a season to reflect on their need for the cross and to prepare their hearts to celebrate Christ’s resurrection. For all faithful observers, Lent is about Jesus and what he did. “You could observe 1,000 Lents,” says Eric Ferris, founder of the Lent Experience, “and it won’t ever accomplish in your life what the cross of Jesus has.” Whether Christians observe Lent or not, what really matters is our embrace of Christ crucified and the empty tomb.
Would you like to learn more about Lent? Check out our seven-part series, Words from the Cross. It digs deep into the significance and resonance of Christ’s words from the Cross as you prepare your heart for Easter.
You might also be interested in a special devotional series, called Focus on the Cross, from our sister ministry, Today, a daily devotional published by ReFrame Ministries, the ministry that brings you Groundwork. Let Today help you refresh, refocus, and renew your faith during the season of Lent.