Lent can be an intimidating time for evangelical preachers. It may seem as if it belongs to the Roman Catholic Church and straying into such territory would be unnatural and, so, unwelcome. But it need not be so, as Lent is a gift to the Church from the Church. It belongs to all Christians who desire to be conformed to the likeness of our Lord. It belongs, therefore, to gospel preachers.
Even so, Lent retains an aura of mystery for those new to its observance. The season itself, situated awkwardly in the annual cycle of the Church only two months removed from Christmas, conjures up visions of dimmed churches, draped crucifixes, and lives darkened by fasting and repentance enigmatically leading to the Light of the World on Easter morning. We tend to think of it as a heavy, dark and burdened season. But the history of Lent need not be a dark mystery to us. Indeed, Lent itself need not be so dark at all. Even a cursory understanding of Lent can greatly enrich our homiletical approach to and experience of this purposeful season. Lent it turns out, provides great opportunity for preachers to herald the Gospel and encourage God’s people to press toward resurrection life.
The origin of Lent lies in two directions: the fast which preceded the Pascha or Passover (Holy Week developed from this), and the period of preparation prescribed for candidates of Holy Baptism (the remainder of Lent developed from this). Baptism, of course, is the rite or sacrament of initiation into the Kingdom of God. The Pascha in the early church commemorated both the crucifixion and the resurrection of Jesus, events that factor greatly into the meaning and significance of Baptism (Acts 2:32-38; Romans 6:1-6; Colossians 2:11-14; 1 Peter 3:18-22). Baptism, then, serves as a major preaching theme throughout Lent emboldening the baptized, “to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:22-24).
One of the significant features of the Pascha services in the early church included the baptism of candidates on the night of the Easter Vigil (followed by Easter Mass at 3am!). Remembering how the Church was an “underground” organization in the first four centuries, it had to exercise particular care to scrutinize prospective members for the sake of safety and their own preservation. There were moles serving the Roman Empire wanting to ensnare Christians for their refusal to worship the pantheon and emperors. So, rigorous catechesis served to both greatly prepare the catechumen for baptism but also weary and expose hypocritical moles. Counting the cost of discipleship and Christian separation from the whims and ways of the world, especially its segments that militate against Christianity (e.g., consumerism, materialism, etc.), emerge as important contrasting themes for preaching.
This scrutiny implied a long period of probation, which normally terminated with reception into membership by baptism at Easter. 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), scrutinizing measures were relaxed, since the threat of persecution receded. What had been a period of preparation for baptism became a general period of baptism and spiritual concentration and discipline for all Christians. In other words, the fasting period for scrutiny was no longer a matter of screening for protection but transitioned to a devotional period for all members of the congregation. This preparation period leading to Good Friday, Easter Vigil and the Resurrection of our Lord, is the basic antecedent to what we know today as Lent — a period of time devoted toward the transformation of all Christians.
Nearly from the beginning of Lenten observances the number 40 has been associated with the Lenten fast. Even though different churches observed different lengths of fast (ranging from one day to seven weeks), they still called it the Quadragesima (or fortieth) fast. Why 40? To what is the 40 day fast associated?
A popular notion, suggested by the second-century Church Father, Tertullian, is the figure 40 commemorates the number of hours Jesus lay in the tomb; one day corresponding to one hour. According to Tertullian, the reason the Catholics gave was this fast was observed because the Bridegroom, Jesus Christ, was taken from His Bride (Mark 2:18-20). Hence the Bride lamented, repented, and prepared herself for the Bridegroom's victorious return.
Another worthy suggestion is the figure 40 referred to the number of days the fast lasted. Despite Sundays always being excluded from the fast and some churches excluded other days also, some fasted for as few as 15 days and no one fasted more than 36 days.
This brings up an important point. The Lord's Day (Sunday) was never allowed to be kept as a fast in the early church but was always observed as a festival (even in Lent) in all the churches of the world as a celebration of Christ's resurrection and the dawning of the new creation. Sermons from St. Chrysostom, for example, describe Sundays in the season of Lent as "stations and inns, and havens, for those to rest in who have taken upon them the course of fasting in this holy time of Lent, that they may refresh their bodies a little from the labors of fasting". Clearly, modern practices have departed greatly in this exercise and, therefore, the understanding and intended meaning of the role of Sundays in Lent. More on this point anon.
There is good, Biblical precedent for a fast of forty days: Moses on Mt. Horeb (Exodus 24:18; Deuteronomy 9:9), Elijah (1 Kings 19:8), and of Christ Himself (Matthew 4:2; Luke 4:2). So, the number 40 is retained to this day as the abiding paradigm for the Lenten season.
Whether the number is supposed to commemorate either the hours Jesus lay in the tomb or the days the Early Church fasted, the figure 36 is closer to the mark than 40 (with 365 days in the year, 36 days was also considered a "tithe" due to the Lord in fasting and penance). It is thought that Pope Gregory the Great, around the year AD 595, added Ash Wednesday and the other three days of the first week before the First Sunday in Lent to the Lenten fast; though attribution is sometimes made to Gregory II. Whoever it may have been, the forty days of Lent (precluding Sundays) were rounded out and in place before the end of the sixth century, giving Lent developmental origins stretching from the first to the sixth century.
Reasons for Lent
The reasons for Lent are a different matter and they have been manifold. Of course, there was the identification and association of the Bride with the Bridegroom. St John Cassian (c. 360-435) suggested (and this suggestion was supported by Pope Leo the Great; papacy 440-461), with the cooling of religious fervor in the ancient church, the bishops considered it necessary to recall Christians to holy living and works of piety and attempt to ween them from their secular cares. Lent perfectly suited this need. Fasting, then, so far from being a "spiritual diet" (to use the creative phrase of Randy Houts) whereby the Christian sets aside indulgences--like chocolate or caffeine--for a season, was all about discerning the goodness, presence and promises of God. Fasting heightened spiritual awareness, facilitated greater devotion to prayer, and initiated the cultivation of holy virtues. This is what makes the gluttony of "Fat Tuesday" or the unrestrained indulgences of Carnival (e.g., Mardi Gras) antithetical to the intent of Lent, namely our sanctification.
In addition to congregational sanctification, another significant and enduring reason for Lent was to prepare catechumens for Holy Baptism. Fasting, retreats of prayer, self-examination, meditation and study filled the Lenten period. This climaxed in the sacrament of Holy Baptism on Easter Vigil, met by the celebration of the congregation.
The final period before Easter was the most rigorous, with the catechumens fasting and undergoing lectures and ecclesial scrutiny (examinations for devotedness and theological understanding). There were originally seven scrutinies. These were reduced to three by the eighth century with its comparative freedom. But it was not just a season for catechumens only, as mentioned above. Already by AD 150, the great early church apologist, Justin Martyr, could write of a general fast of the whole church, catechists and catechumens together:
As many as are persuaded and do believe that the things taught and said by us are true, and promise to live accordingly, they are instructed to pray, and with fasting to beg of God remission of sins, we [the clergy] praying and fasting together with them.
Lastly, penitents, who had been given a stated period of penance to test the genuineness of their repentance, were also readmitted to absolution and communion at Easter. Lent, therefore, was a time of sanctifying the Church and healing and strengthening Christians in a concerted way and during a concentrated period. This spirit of Lent abides from a pastoral standpoint.