Lent not Lint
Today is Ash Wednesday, the traditional beginning of Lent for the Western Liturgical Churches. Because I’ve had a number of questions about Lent, I’m going to attempt to give a casual explanation of where Lent came from, what it is, and my personal thoughts on observation of it.
I’ll be doing this through my Lutheran/ Moravian understanding of it.
You’ve been warned.
Lentin Time Line
How old is Lent?
The earliest Church tradition holds that those seeking baptism into the Christian faith were asked to fast for forty hours in preparation of the event, as it was held that Christ was forty hours in the tomb. Interesting, isn’t it? A fast of forty hours, tied in with the death and resurrection of Christ, tied in with being His disciple. But I don’t have a solid date for this. And it’s not a seasonal thing; it was done when the seeker felt ready to make a commitment to Christ. So, I’ll move on.
The earliest date for a reference to something that is like Lent, a Lent ancestor if you will, is 130-200 AD. It comes from writings of Irenaus of Lyons, an early church father. He sites in his letters that the early church observes a time of fasting in remembrance/preparation for Resurrection Day. This early Lent ancestor wasn’t forty days; it was two or three days. It is related to Lent, as the underlying idea behind it, is the same. It was a time of introspection (soul-searching) contemplation (thinking about Christ and all that He did and was doing for them) and penance (chance to show a truly contrite heart over sin).
In 313 AD there was the Edict of Milan, which allowed religious freedom, and the persecution of Christians slacked off. Because of this, there was a great influx of curious people who wanted to incorporate Christianity into their own religions. It was a case of “Jesus and” and the early church fought against this by introducing study, fasting, and mentoring of those that wanted to be baptized. Here it begins to be a time of roughly forty days but it is still only for the new believers or seekers, it’s not for the ecclesia yet.
Where’s the proof of this?
It can be found in the writings of the council of Nicea in 325 AD. They talked about a forty day season for fasting in the spring (Lenten) to prepare the hearts of those contemplating Baptism at Resurrection Sunday.
At some point, after 325 AD and before 400 AD the entire church began observing this time of introspection, contemplation, and penance. If anyone has a more exact date, please feel free to tell me in the comments.
So I think it’s safe to say by 400 AD it was a common church practice to observe Lent.
This is the year 2012 and ignoring all of the jiggery-pokery with calendars I am going to say that Lent is a church practice 1,612 years old.
But it is also a tradition of men and is not, as someone asked me recently, found anywhere in Scripture.
Terms/ Words to Know.
Ash Wednesday*: The first day of Lent, a solemn and holy day usually marked by attendance to a church service of some kind, and the wearing of ashes on the forehead in the shape of a cross. The ashes remind us that we are all mortal, and that once we were under penalty of death, marked convicts with no hope.
Lent: comes from the Anglo-Saxon word, lencten, meaning “Spring.” This makes sense of a sort, as Lent always falls in the Spring, and usually starts somewhere in March. This year, it’s early. Lent officially starts on Ash Wednesday and some churches observe a Fat Tuesday or Shrove Tuesday before it
Quadragesima*: is the Latin term used for Lent. It means “fortieth”. It was to be the ‘fortieth’ day of Lent. At this point, it seems the church counted backwards towards Paschal/ Resurrection Sunday. The Roman Catholic Church in some regions still celebrates a Quadragesmia Sunday (the Sunday after Ash Wednesday) with special services.
Shrive/Shrove: comes from the Old English scrifan (to write) and today means to administer the rite of reconciliation, to free from guilt. Shrove is the past-tense of shrive.
Shrove Tuesday: Is the day before Ash Wednesday, and traditionally one where people eat pancakes. Why? Because the sugar, fat, eggs, and flour in pancakes are things which you are to abstain from during the Lentin fast. Think of it is one great big last hurrah before the fasting season. For Catholics, it is also a traditional day to go to confession. I could go into more detail and the good the bad and the ugly of Shrove Tuesday (where Marti Gras comes from) but I want to keep on the topic of Lent.
Now, what is going on with Ash Wednesday and Quadragesmia Sunday?
It starts on Wednesday, and the reason that it starts on a Wednesday and not on a Sunday is because of a gentleman name Gregory the Great (540AD-604AD). During the 600’s there was already a laxing of the rules regarding Lent and the fasting of the faithful. Sundays were excluded from the days counted in the fast, and since they were excluded and since the church still wanted to observe the forty days of fasting, Gregory the Great backed the start of Lent up to Wednesday, and named it Ash Wednesday.
So, there’s the closet I can get to the origin of Lent. You’re welcome.