For those who want to know: THE PRIMITIVE ORIGINS OF LENT

Taken and adapted from, “Lent, Past and Present”
Written by, Hermann Lilienthal
Published in, 1895lent

The earliest name given to this fasting season…

…seems to be Quadragesimal,  –the Latin equivalent for the Greek term, or the Quadragesimal Fast, referring to its length. But whether the Quadragesimal Fast was for forty days or only forty hours is a point on which differences of opinion have existed.

Another name given to this season is the Ante-Paschal fast, referring to the fact that from the very first age it was customary to fast before Easter –the paschal feast or pass over.

Still another name is the one with which we are most familiar, is Lent. This name of the season is supposed to be derived from the old English word for Spring ‘Lencten, meaning perhaps, the time when the days lengthen.”

Now to enter into a more detailed examination we have these three names: Quadragesimal, referring to the length of the fast whether according to hours or days; Ante-Paschal fast, referring to the position of the fast in the Christian year; and Lent, referring to its position in the natural year.

The earliest reference we have to it is in a letter preserved by Eusebius in his Church History. Eusebius, who was born about the year 260 A. D., quotes in his history (Book v. ch. 24) a passage from a letter of Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons in Gaul, to Victor, Bishop of Rome. The letter was written in reference to the diversity of usage of keeping Easter in the primitive Church, and incidentally the fact is brought out of the observance of Lent. “For the controversy,” writes Irenaeus, “is not only concerning the day (Easter) but also concerning the very manner of the fast (the fast before Easter). For some think that they should fast one day, others two, yet others more; some moreover count their day as consisting of forty hours, day and night. And this variety in its observance has not originated in our time, but long before in that of our ancestors.” Now Irenaeus, the writer of this letter, was born about the year 130 A. D., and had sat at the feet of Polycarp, who was himself a disciple of John. This is what Irenaeus says of Polycarp: “Polycarp was instructed by apostles, and conversed with many who had seen Christ; and I saw him in my early youth.” “I can recall the very place where Polycarp used to sit and teach, his manner of speech, his mode of life, his appearance, the style of his address to the people, and the accounts which he gave of his intercourse with (St.) John and with the others who had seen the Lord; how he used to repeat from memory their discourses, and the things which he had heard from them concerning our Lord, His miracles, and His teaching.” And in addition he says, “These things being told me by the mercy of God, I listened to them attentively, noting them down, not on paper, but in my heart.”

I am particular to observe this connection of Irenaeus with Polycarp because it gives us a hint how early must have been the origin of a Lenten fast. Irenaeus was a disciple of Polycarp, and Polycarp was a disciple of St. John.

By spiritual descent we might say Irenaeus was a spiritual grandson of the beloved disciple St. John. In this letter to Victor we further notice, the writer says of the observance of Lent, it “has not originated in our time; but long before in that of our ancestors.” Now as Polycarp was the teacher of Irenaeus, we may safely say that a Lenten fast must have been observed as early as the time of this teacher, and this teacher lived in the later years of St. John the apostle. Again, if ”ancestors ” refers back to more than one generation, we have then the Lenten fast referred back to St. John, the teacher of Irenaeus. It seems reasonable and worthy of credit therefore, that some Lenten or Ante-Paschal fast was an established custom at least as early as the beginning of the second century, and perhaps earlier, at the close of the first century in the last years of the beloved disciple himself. The place of institution of this fast, connecting it as we do with St. John, was, we may believe, in the East, in Ephesus and the cities adjacent.

Again, we have evidence of the early origin of the Lenten fast in the writings of Tertullian, who lived in the second and third centuries, and who after his perversion to Montanism, in controversy with the primitive Church about fasts, chides it for keeping only the two days before Easter. We hear again of the observance of Lent by the allusion of the First General Council held in 325 A. D., and the reference to Lent by this Council tends to confirm us in the belief that this season had already been long established. In the fifth canon of this Council concerning excommunication, in order that this discipline may not be arbitrarily exercised, it is advised that two synods be held in a year when questions of discipline might be reviewed. In determining the time when these synods shall be held the canon says, ”Let one synod be held before Lent,” or, according to the Latinized form of the original Greek, before the Quadragesimal Fast.

After this First Council had concluded its deliberations the Emperor Constantine wrote an encyclical letter to the bishops of the Church urging uniformity in the observance of Easter, and from this letter we indirectly learn of the universal practice of an Ante-Paschal fast. Thus the Emperor writes, “Let your pious sagacity, (the bishop) reflect how evil and improper it is, that days devoted by some to fasting should be spent by others in convivial feasting; and that after the paschal feast, some are rejoicing in festivals and relaxations, while others give themselves up to the appointed fasts.” By the year 325 A. D. we may say the observance of the Lenten fast was universal in the Church. Its earliest origin, as we have seen, may reach as far back as to the later years of the apostle St. John; but if this early date be questioned, then certainly to the generation of Christians immediately succeeding the apostle one of whose disciples was Polycarp. We may safely say that a Lenten or Ante-Paschal fast of some kind has been observed continuously in the Christian Church from the beginning of the second century down to our time.

We have already seen from the letter of Irenaeus that there was a difference of usage as to the time of keeping, and also as to the length of the fast. Let us now observe what was presumably the original duration of the fast, and how it has been developed to its present length.

The early historians notice diversity of usage in regard to the fast; still they lead us to think that originally the Lenten fast was but forty hours long, begun about twelve on Friday before Easter, Good Friday, and continued till Sunday morning, the time of our Savior’s resurrection. Irenaeus, whom we have already mentioned, refers to this fast as ‘the fast of forty hours before Easter.’ It perhaps is only right to notice that a difference of punctuation of this passage from Irenaeus gives us a different interpretation, that is, that the fast was of forty days, but the general consensus of modern scholars interpreting with the light of the historical development of this season thrown upon this passage, favors the rendering ” forty hours ” rather than ” forty days.”

Tertullian also refers to the Lenten fast as coinciding with the two days, the time our Lord lay in the sepulcher, and his allusion to this period leads us to think that in his day the Ante-Paschal fast was not of more than forty hours in length. We may well believe that the Church, even from apostolic times, observed this season, basing the fast, as Tertullian and others tell us, on the words of our Lord, “The days will come that the Bridegroom shall be taken from them and then shall they fast.” Our examination seems so far to establish the view that at the first the Lenten fast extended only over about forty hours.

Without being able to trace the gradual in-crease in length of this season, we notice that by the end of the third and beginning of the fourth century the Lenten fast had greatly lengthened; but even so, though the practice of a fast was universal, there was no absolute uniformity as to its duration. The historian Socrates writes, ” One may observe how the Ante-Paschal fast is differently observed by men of different churches. The Romans fast three weeks before Easter, only the Sabbaths and Lord’s Days excepted; the Illyrians and all Greece and the Alexandrians fast six weeks; others (the Church of Constantinople) begin their fast seven weeks before Easter, but only fast fifteen days by intervals.”

Cassian, another historian, tells us, “Though some churches kept their Lent six weeks, and some seven, yet none of them made their fast above thirty-six days in the whole.” Yet, not-withstanding the fact that the various churches had different periods for their fast, they all called it the Quadragesimal Fast. So the name Quadragesimal is by no means proof positive of the belief of some, that the fast was always one of forty days. In fact, as we have just seen, Cassian says none “made their fast above thirty-six days in the whole,” and the reason given for this period of observance was that it was one tenth of the year, a tithe of time which should be devoted to God. As Christians tithed their alms so should they tithe their year.

Thus those who kept six weeks reckoned only thirty-six days for their fast, for from the forty-two days of six weeks was deducted the six Sundays, thus leaving but thirty-six days.

Again, those churches which kept seven weeks kept only thirty-six fasting days: for though seven weeks give us forty-nine days, yet all the Saturdays “the Saturday before Easter being excepted” as well as Sundays were taken out; thus thirteen days were deducted from the forty-nine days, which still made the fast one of thirty-six days. It was the Eastern Church rather than the Western which kept a greater number of weeks, because in the Eastern Church Saturday “the great Sabbath excepted” ” has never been a fast day, not even in the Lenten season. This accounts for the Lenten fast beginning earlier in the Eastern than in the Western Church, and so lasting through a greater number of weeks, though the actual number of fasting days was the same.

It is interesting to observe the reason given by St. Chrysostom for the exception of Saturdays and Sundays from fasting. ”As there are stations,” says he, ”and inns in the public roads, for weary travelers to refresh themselves, and rest from their labors, that they may more cheerfully go on again in their journey; and as in the sea there are shores and havens for seamen to betake themselves to, when they are in a storm, and refresh themselves from the violence of the winds, and then begin sailing again; so the Lord hath appointed these two days (Saturday and Sunday) in the week, as stations, and inns, and shores, 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 labor of fasting, and recreate their minds, and after the two days are past, to go on again with cheerfulness in the journey which they have begun.”

But to return to the extension of this season the next advance is to the exact period of forty days which now prevails throughout western Christendom. Who added Ash-Wednesday and the three days following it to the be-ginning of Lent in the Western Church so as to make the season exactly forty days is not unanimously agreed upon by historians. Some say it was the work of Gregory the Great, but others ascribe it to Gregory II., who lived over a hundred years later. ” But whichever of these Bishops added the four extra days, they are an addition made to the season sometime after it had been an established usage of the Church to observe a Lenten fast, as Cassian has told us, of only thirty-six days. If the four extra days were added by Gregory L, the Lent fast of forty days would not be earlier than the close of the sixth or beginning of the seventh century. If the change was made by Gregory II., then the practice of a Lent fast of forty days does not antedate 715 A. D.

But we may see a reason for the change from thirty-six days ” the tithe of the year ” to forty days. Forty days is a period that occurs frequently in the Bible as a time of fasting and prayer.

Moses when first he went up into the mount to receive the Law says of himself, ” I abode in the mount forty days and forty nights. I neither did eat bread nor drink water.” Again he says of himself after he had broken the two Tables of the Law because of the idolatry of his people, “And I fell down before the Lord as at the first, forty-days and forty nights, I did neither eat bread nor drink water, because of all your sins which ye sinned.” So too it is inferred by many that Elijah fasted forty days after he had twice eaten of food prepared for him by an angel, ” and went in the strength of that meat forty days and forty nights unto Horeb the mount of God.”

Briefly to instance a few more Old Testament examples of this number forty: “This was the number of days God covered the earth with the deluge; this the number of years in which the children of Israel did penance in the wilderness; and the Ninevites had this number of days allowed for their repentance.” But chiefly is the parallel found in the life of our Lord, who, led up of the spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil, ” fasted forty days and forty nights.” The change then which was made from thirty-six to forty days we may believe was based on the scriptural analogies which have been quoted, and which at the same time made the number of days agree with the name of the season itself “Quadragesimal” a name which notwithstanding the variation in the length of the season in different sections of the primitive Church, was indifferently applied.

It may not be amiss to briefly state how the forty days’ fast is computed. Ash-Wednesday to Easter “a period of six weeks and four days” gives us forty-six days, from which number of days are subtracted the six Sundays in Lent, thus giving us the Lenten fast of forty days.

Here too a word may be permitted as to the origin of the word Ash-Wednesday. We have learned that originally there was no Ash-Wednesday connected with the Lenten fast.

This day was not added, at the earliest, until the time of Gregory I., and it derives its name from the custom which was instituted at the time the day was added of sprinkling ashes upon the heads of penitents to remind them of their mortality. Further, as to this practice we are led to believe that ashes were not sprinkled upon all the worshippers, but only on the heads of those who were penitents, and were under sentence of ecclesiastical discipline.