Lent. How did it begin?

Lent is one of the oldest sacred periods in the Christian Calendar. All Christians know it from childhood although their experiences will be different depending on which denomination they belong to. The English word Lent comes from the old Anglo-Saxon ‘lenten’ meaning ‘spring season’ as its Dutch equivalent ‘lente’ still does today. Lent commemorates the forty days which, according to Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus spent reflecting and fasting in the desert. In Biblical times, ‘forty days’ was a figure of speech signifying a long time whereas ‘three days’ meant a short time. It’s similar to us saying today ‘see you in five minutes’.

Lent has always been a period of reflection, self-examination and penitence in preparation for Easter. Up to around the year 200, the period lasted only two or three days. In 325, the Council of Nicea instituted the 40 day Lenten season of fasting. It is believed that it was originally intended for new Christians as they prepared for Baptism. However, it soon encompassed the whole Christian Church.

Sundays have been excluded from Lent in the Western and Eastern Churches since early days. In both traditions, observance during the rest of the week was strict. One meal was allowed per day. No meat, fish or animal products were permitted. Until the 600s Lent began on Quadragesima Sunday. Pope Gregory (c.540-604) moved it to Wednesday. As Christians came to church on the first day of Lent, their foreheads were anointed with ashes reminding them of repentance and of their own mortality, hence the name ‘Ash Wednesday’.

Since the Reformation, attitudes to Lent have differed and polarised. So today, Lent is most strictly observed by the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches. The Anglican Church observes some of the same rituals as Rome and the East, as do many protestant churches. But some protestant churches do not observe Lent at all and even regard it as anti-scriptural. The carnival celebrations which occur in the Catholic southern Netherlands are seen as a last opportunity for enjoyment before Lent begins. The day preceding Lent is called Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) in some, mainly Catholic, countries. It’s called ‘Pancake’ or ‘Shrove’ Tuesday in the British Isles and it is when pancakes are traditionally served. This is the only custom, apart from Ash Wednesday, that marks the beginning of Lent in the UK. So, pass the maple syrup…

Paul Donnelly