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The Origins of Lent

January 26, 2010

The word lent originates from the Teutonic word lencten, meaning ‘lengthen’ in reference to the lengthening of days in the season of spring.  Later, during the early church, the word ‘lent’ became the common English translation for the Latin word quadragesima, meaning ‘forty days’.  There is historical evidence that some Lenten preparation took place prior to Easter in these early days; however, there was no regularity as to the requirements for Lenten preparation.  The churches in various regions had widely different practices during the Lenten season.  Some observed the Lenten sacrificial fasting and preparation for 24 hours, some for one week, and still others for the entire 40 days. 

Lent became more regularized throughout the church once Christianity was legalized in 313 A.D.  The Council of Nicea, which met in 325 A.D., pronounced that Lent should be observed for the 40 days before Easter in preparation for the Easter festival.  The observance should include prayer and fasting for 40 days prior to Holy Week (the week directly before Easter) and more strenuous fasting should occur during Holy Week.    

The number 40 has always had powerful symbolic significance regarding preparation and occurs multiple times throughout the scripture of both the Old and New Testaments.  Noah was in the ark for 40 days and 40 nights of the flood (Gen 7:4,12,17 8:6)  Moses stayed with the Lord for 40 days and 40 nights on Mt. Sinai while waiting to receive the ten commandments (Ex 24:18, Deut 9:9-25).  Elijah travelled 40 days and 40 nights to the mountain of the Lord, Mt. Horeb (1Kings 19:8).  Jesus fasted for 40 days and 40 nights in the desert (Mat 4:2). Jesus appears for 40 days to his disciples after his resurrection (Acts 1:3).  These are but a few of the times the number 40 appears in scripture. 

The next rule of preparation for Lent to be decided was the nature of the fasting.  Should it be total fast drinking only water, should it be abstaining from meat and fish, should observers abstain from all animal products?  Most churches of the time encouraged abstinence from all foods that come from flesh such as meat, cheese, milk, and eggs.  Fish was not considered flesh and could be consumed and still be in accordance with the fast.  Additionally, observers were allowed one modest meal per day, preferably in the late afternoon. 

As the church evolved, these rules also evolved, ostensibly to help workers have enough strength to participate in manual labor while observing Lent.  The newer rules require fasting involving abstention from meat on Ash Wednesday and every Friday during Lent, except for Good Friday wherein a total fast is required.  As a further sacrifice, people are encouraged to give up some personal pleasure in addition to the requirements above for all the days of Lent.  In modern days, this could be not watching television for the 40 days or not indulging in candy or dessert during the 40 days.  Technically, observers can partake in whatever they have given up for Lent during the 40 days on Sundays because it is a regular ‘feast day’ for the church and supposed to be looked upon with joy.  However, it is my thought, and the way I raise my children, that if one is going to participate at all in a sacrificial rite to G-d, one should do it for the entire time, not finding loopholes to weasel out of the sacrifice.

Other activities encouraged during Lent in addition to fasting and prayer include:  regular personal inventory of one’s sins and subsequent confession, additional devotion to the Word, additional time for fervent prayer, the stations of t he cross, and other spiritual enrichments.  Lent is a time of sacrifice and preparation wherein we prepare our souls for the joyous and glorious celebration of the resurrection of our Lord and Savior.

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