A History of Lent: Lent's Somber Complexion

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The driving impulse of Lent isn’t so much “giving up” things as it is “putting on” something.

Lent is a mystical and sometimes mysterious season within the Church calendar, evoking thoughts of dimly lit churches, draped crucifixes, hushed voices, and life darkened by fasting and repentance. Somehow, these disciplines are meant to lead to revelations of Jesus as the Light of the World. But the history of Lent need not be a dark mystery nor, indeed, our understanding and observance of Lent itself be so dark. We’ll find that the driving impulse of Lent isn’t so much “giving up” things as it is “putting on” something; not so much lamenting Jesus’s death as it is campaigning in his victory. Historically speaking, Lent promoted practicing resurrection life over the mortification of the flesh. To be sure, the latter was never neglected, but neither was it the focal point like in recent centuries. Revisiting both the origins and meaning of Lent can greatly enrich our corporate and personal experience of this sacred season. It’s to that history we now turn.

The origin of Lent stems from two converging inputs: First, the fast that preceded the Pascha or Passover (Holy Week developed from this); and second, the period of preparation prescribed for candidates for Holy Baptism (the remainder of Lent developed from this). Discipleship, catechesis, and sacraments unmistakably set the framework of what would become Lent. When these two streams converged, Lent became a potent season for disciple-making and disciple-formation.

The Pascha in the early church commemorated the historic crucifixion and factual resurrection of the Lord Jesus. In fact, “Good Friday” and “Resurrection of Our Lord” were observed as a single festival of the “Crucifixion and Resurrection of Our Lord.” The fasting aspect of this solemnity seems to have been a discipline from Good Friday through Easter Vigil until Mass on Sunday. The discipline of fasting, however, triggered a controversy that overshadowed an earlier, more balanced emphasis on resurrection life and contributed to Lent’s darker tones. Saint Irenaeus reports: 

For the controversy is not only about the day [on which to observe Christ’s resurrection], but also concerning the very form of the fast. For there are those who hold that one should fast a single day, others two, and others more. Some count “the day” as forty continuous hours of day and night. [1]

The hubbub was over how one should interpret Jesus’s words: “The days will come when the bridegroom shall be taken away from them, and then they shall fast in those days” (Luke 5:35). Should the people keep a fast on Good Friday only or for the time between Jesus’s death and his resurrection, amounting to forty hours? It took decrees from the Council of Nicaea in 325 to quiet the ruckus, and even still, practices are wildly varied.

All that fuss was over what Christians were to do about fasting. For converts from paganism, their “fast’ would be significantly longer and form the second contributing factor that, with the short fast for Christians, contributes to the origins of Lent.

One of the significant features of the Pascha celebrations in the Early Church included the baptism of catechumens on the night of the Easter Vigil, also known as Holy Saturday. (This was followed by Easter Mass at 3 am!) Remembering that in the first four centuries, the church primarily was an “underground” movement; it had to exercise particular care to scrutinize prospective adult members for the sake of safety and their own preservation. This scrutiny implied a long period of probation, usually three years. Once fulfilled, it concluded with a battery of examinations and bouts of fasting in the weeks leading to reception into membership by the rite of baptism at Easter and welcome to the Eucharist. Here, we see the future shape of Lent, replete with contrite fasting. 

However, after the Constantinian Edict of Toleration in AD 313 and the consequent legalization of Christianity (it did not become the “official” religion of the Empire until the 380s under Theodosius), the scrutinizing rigors of catechesis were relaxed since the threat of persecution receded. But the church moves slowly toward change, really slowly, and it took decades for strictures to go from three years to one, taking us into the 400s. What had been an arduous period of preparation and examination for adults seeking baptism became a normative period for baptisms of all kinds of people, but also spiritual concentration and discipline for every Christian. [2] In other words, the fasting period of scrutiny was no longer a matter of screening for protection but transitioned to a devotional period for all members of the congregation. 

The positive aspects of living resurrection life were eclipsed by connotations of repentance, fasting, and asceticism

Yet there was one more significant factor. Just when it looked like favorable times had arrived, a series of events took place that rocked the church, factoring into Lent’s development and its lugubrious outlook: Christian Rome was sacked by Gothic Hordes time and again. Vandals overwhelmed Southern Europe in 410 and 455, leading to the fall of the Roman Empire in 476. 

The church’s bishops called for comprehensive contrition and reformation of life. In light of such a calamity, forty hours of fasting were deemed insufficient. The numeric weeks that counted backward from Easter, prior to Ash Wednesday, were transformed into penitential days. So too, all the weeks following Ash Wednesday became an obligatory time of fasting and contrition. Everyone would join the fast lest God remove his lampstand from the West.

This decidedly penitential complexion came to characterize both Eastern and Western communions, even though there was variation in how many weeks constituted Lent, per se. Some observed three weeks, some six, some seven; some omitted Saturdays as well as Sundays (Eastern) [3]; some omitted Sunday only (Western). The Western Church fasted for six weeks, amounting to thirty-six fast days, since every Sunday celebrated the day of resurrection as the first day of the new week. (Making today’s common practice a bit upside down — Sundays in Lent actually stand outside of Lent and shouldn’t really be a day to observe Lent!) That’s the inherited tradition of today’s Lutherans, Anglicans, and Roman Catholics.

Lent, as a season inextricably associated with baptism, drew heavily from the theological imagery and significance of the rite. Death and resurrection. Mortification and revivification. Putting away the old Adam and the desires of the flesh while putting on the Last Adam and life in the Spirit. Jesus provided the iconic example, and it was his life, even his episodes of fasting, that the church was to emulate by holding repentance and faith in tension. Given the aforementioned controversies over fasting, the democratization of it among all catechumens and catechists, and these things compounded by life-altering invasions, the positive aspects of living resurrection life were eclipsed by connotations of repentance, fasting, and asceticism. Simply put, Lent put on an ashen face, and it would remain that way through the Medieval period. Notwithstanding, golden-mouthed preachers like Saint John Chrysostom and eventually Martin Luther would infuse notes of resurrection life as the real goal of Lenten striving.