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Description of Lent
Lent is the season of remembrance of the sacrifice of Jesus. Many Christians respond by foregoing some treat or delight, making these days into days of sorrow. A Christian sacrifices something held dear in order to remember and empathize with (if only in a small way) the act of Jesus. Catholics, Orthodox, and some Protestants, such as Episcopalians, engage in Lent.
Lent is frequently spoken of as a forty-day period. This is somewhat misleading since Sundays are not counted. Including the Sundays one ends up with 46 days. Why not count Sundays in the forty days? Because Sundays honor the resurrection of Jesus and therefore are not “days of sorrow” but days of rejoicing. So, Lent is actually forty-six days long.
The idea of Lent is not found in the New Testament. The earliest comment on the need to prepare for Easter comes from a letter Ireneaus wrote to Pope Victor around the year 190. He included this: “For the controversy is not only about [when to celebrate] the day, but also about the actual character of the fast; for some who think that they ought to fast one day, others two, others even more, some count their day as forty hours, day and night.” The forty-hour fast might have come from the idea that Jesus was dead for forty hours. So by the year 200, the idea of a fast was common, but the timing was debated.
In the year 340, Athanasius, a bishop in Alexandria, Egypt, encouraged the Christians there to fast for forty days: “But I have further deemed it highly necessary and very urgent, to make known to your modesty—for I have written this to each one—that you should proclaim the fast of forty days to the brethren, and persuade them to fast, lest, while all the world is fasting, we who are in Egypt should be derided, as the only people who do not fast, but take our pleasure in these days.” He does not mention Lent or Easter, but it appears that this was his point.
Yet the forty-days idea was not set in stone. Pope Gregory I (d. 604) spoke of a thirty-six day fast, perhaps roughly equating to a 10% tithe of the 365 days in the year. Yet the forty-day idea won out a century later. In a church document approved by the French king (known as the Frankish king) called the Capitulary of the Church of Toulon and written in 714, the days of the fast were determined to be forty. And a liturgical work from Amaury from the early 800s mentions a forty-day fast. (Excluding Sundays as mentioned above.)
It was Gregory I, though, who helped established the type of fast. He wrote, “We abstain from flesh meat, and from all things that come from flesh, as milk, cheese, and eggs.” This was the standard in the Middle Ages and led to the practice of getting rid of milk and eggs prior to Lent by eating pancakes on the Tuesday prior to Lent, known as Shrove Tuesday. And why use the word “Lent”? It is comes from the word “lencten,” which is the old English or Anglo-Saxon word for “Spring,” as in the season of Spring.
And why do so few Protestants practice Lent? Because the practice of Lent is one of the dates on the liturgical calendar. This calendar celebrates events in Jesus’ life throughout the year. The liturgical calendar is used extensively in Catholic and Orthodox churches and in denominations which retained some Catholic ideas after they broke from Catholicism. For example, the Episcopalians (also known as Anglicans) broke from the Catholic Church and yet maintain the liturgical calendar and even have monks and nuns. Other groups, after making a break from the Catholic Church, wanted to get as far from any Catholic practice as possible, and so abolished the liturgical calendar. Thus, I grew up in a Baptist church and never heard of Lent. Once I studied Church History and the Catholic Church, I learned about Lent.
©2009 Mark Nickens
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