Lent: A Long History
An interesting question to ask is when the observance of Lent began? Well in a loose sense, we could say that Lent has been observed since the creation of man. For insofar as Lent is predominantly a time of fasting – this is the main penance that we perform during Lent – insofar as Lent is predominantly a time of fasting, then there’s never really been a time when Lent hasn’t been around. For as early Church Fathers St. Basil, St. John Chrysostom, St. Jerome, and Pope St. Gregory the Great note, the command to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden to NOT eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was, in some respect, a command to fast. Above all it was a command to obedience, but the point is that their obedience was to be manifested in NOT eating of something. So in a sense that was a command to fast, for to fast is to refrain from eating of something, as Adam and Eve were commanded to NOT eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Then of course, by failing to abstain from the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, Adam and Eve brought upon themselves and their descendants thereafter all kinds of evils, pains, sufferings, and miseries. And the consequences to that sin laid out to Adam and Eve thereafter show the life of penance that is imposed upon man by the justice of God – the earth is to not yield of its fruit with ease, for example, but thorns and thistles, at the sweat of man’s brow. So then, if by Lent we mean the need to fast and the penance that sinful man must commit in repentance and reparation for sin, then in a certain sense that’s been around from the beginning – Adam and Eve were supposed to fast from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and penance was imposed on them after failing to do so.
But of course, we want something more concrete than that, for we want to know when this great Christian time of penance came into the equation. Of course, the Law of Moses under the Old Testament was full of fasting and penitential acts, but this really comes to a head in the New Testament. And to this we move forward from the beginning to the wilderness temptations of our Lord. Jesus Himself did not institute the season of Lent, but as the Fathers of the Church speak of it, He did consecrate a 40 days fast in His wilderness temptations. Which shows us that the fasting practiced so often by God’s people in the Old Testament under the Law of Moses was certainly going to carry on into the New Law of Christ. Because what is the Christian but an alter Christus, another Christ, one who puts on the mind and heart of our Lord? As St. Paul writes in Galatians 2:20, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” The life of the disciple of Christ is meant to be a life in imitation of Christ. And therefore since our Lord Himself fasted for 40 days, so ought we to, as well.
The question still remains, though, as to when the season of Lent itself actually began. To this we ask ourselves who it is that would best understand our Lord’s words and actions, the implications therein, but the apostles, those who lived for three and half years with Jesus Christ? And so what do we see from them? Certainly that fasting is something that the Apostles understood very clearly, for we find the apostles fasting in Acts of the Apostles. And we find the apostles recommending fasting to the faithful in their epistles of the New Testament. Why? Because although our sins have been forgiven by Christ on the cross, we still yet remain sinners, and thus there must still be expiation for sin. Further still, as is testified to by the Fathers of the Church – St. Jerome, Pope St. Leo the Great, St. Cyril of Alexandria, St. Isidore of Seville, and company – as testified to by the Fathers of the Church, not only did the apostles still practice fasting, not only did the apostles recommend fasting, but the apostles also actually instituted the season of Lent. Of course, developments do come over the centuries – how many days is Lent, when exactly does Lent begin and end, different Lenten activities practiced by the different ritual Churches. Nonetheless, a season of penance in the universal Church in preparation for the Passion, death, and resurrection of Christ is of apostolic institution, even if not all of the finer details. So then, Lent was consecrated by our Lord, insofar as He spent 40 days in fasting, and then instituted by the apostles themselves to be practiced by the Christian faithful. We thus enter into the great history of the Church in our own days of Lent today!
If you enjoy these Lenten reflections, then connect with us to get video recordings of this year’s “Lent with the Director” online series and learn how you can better enter into the spirit of the season and start your Lent off on the right track! Call the office at 303-715-3195.