Lent is one of the oldest practices of the Church. St. Irenaus of Lyons wrote about a season of Lent in the late 100s. Granted at that time the season only lasted a few days. Even for the early Church, Lent was a time of self-examination and penance, to prepare for Easter. What better way is there to prepare for such as an amazing feast as Easter, than to examine ourselves and try to root out sins in our lives? The purpose of Lent has always been to make us better able to celebrate Easter. Other practices associated with Lent have been added over the centuries, but the central focus of Lent has always been preparing for Easter.
At the Council of Nicea, in 325, the Church recognized that Lent was being practiced for 40 days. Some areas practiced it differently, with some churches not fasting on Saturday and Sunday (thus making Lent last eight weeks); other churches fasted every day except Sunday (thus making Lent last six weeks). There were also different restrictions on foods depending on the church’s location, some allowed fish, some did not, others allowed people to eat more depending on their work, some kept to a stricter fast (the Christians pretty much became vegans for Lent), and it really depended on what was available to the churches at the time. But one thing, the whole Church agreed with was spiritual practices should be taken up during Lent. This was a time when people were to be growing closer to God through prayer and fasting.
Pope Gregory the Great is credited with the institution of Ash Wednesday; he decided in the West, Lent should start 46 days before Easter. He marked the occasion with marking parishioners’ heads with ashes, signifying their repentance (the Biblical idea of putting on ashes and sackcloth) and reminding them that it was from dust they were created and to dust they shall return. People were also coming to the Church on Ash Wednesday for forgiveness before taking on the great fast.
On a more practical note Lent also developed from the practice of new Christians being baptized on Easter Sunday. These catechumens would enter into a time of fasting and self-evaluation before being baptized. This is also why the Easter liturgy has a renewal of Baptismal Vows. It was an important time in the life of the Church because it taught those who wanted to profess Christ, what the Christian life entailed, a life of sacrifice leading to joy.
So what lesson should you take from the history of the practice of Lent? I hope that you would take that, this not just a season of giving something up, but also a season of taking up new spiritual practices. We do fast, but we also pray. We take a deep long look at ourselves, but we also reflect on God’s work in the world and in our lives. And though looking at ourselves and looking at God’s work we see where Christ is transforming us to look more like himself. So when we go to celebrate the Great Easter Vigil we come out of darkness, to the bright and shining light of Christ Resurrection, being revealed as better people and better Christians; ready to go out into the world reflecting the Light of Christ into the places still in darkness.
Question: What are you giving up for Lent, what are you taking up as a spiritual discipline?