On the Origins of Lent

The word “Lent” comes from the old English, “lencten,” which means “spring.” In Middle English is derived the words, lenten, lente, lent; related to the Dutch, lente, the German, Lenz, also rendered “spring.” In Old German are found the related words: lenzin, lengizin, and lenzo, which probably comes from the same root as “long” and referring to “the lengthening days,” as the earth moves from the winter solstice toward the spring equinox.

In the Christian Church, Lent refers to the period of abstinence preparatory to the Feast of Easter. As this fast falls in the early part of the year, it became confused with the season, and gradually the word Lent, which originally meant spring, was confined to this liturgical use. The Latin name for the fast is Quadragesima derived from the Sunday which was the fortieth day before Easter.

The length of this fast and the rigor with which it has been observed have varied greatly at different times and in different countries. In the time of Irenaeus (second century A.D.) the fast before Easter was very short, but very severe; thus some ate nothing for forty hours between the afternoon of Good Friday and the morning of Easter. This was the only authoritatively prescribed fast known to Tertullian. In Alexandria about the middle of the 3rd century it was already customary to fast during Holy Week; and earlier still the Montanists boasted that they observed a two weeks’ fast instead of one.
Of the Lenten fast or Quadragesima, the first mention is in the fifth canon of the council of Nicaea (A.D. 325), and from this time it is frequently referred to, but chiefly as a season of preparation for baptism, of absolution of penitents or of retreat and recollection. In this season fasting played a part, but it was not universally nor rigorously enforced. At Rome, for instance, the whole period of fasting was but three weeks, according to the historian Socrates (History of the Church), these three weeks being not continuous but, following the primitive Roman custom, broken by intervals.

Gradually, however, the fast as observed in East and West became more rigorously defined. In the East, where after the example of the Church of Antioch, the Quadragesima fast had been kept distinct from that of Holy Week, the whole fast came to last for seven weeks, both Saturdays and Sundays (except Holy Saturday) being, however, excluded. In Rome and Alexandria, and even in Jerusalem, Holy Week was included in Lent and the whole fast lasted but six weeks, Saturdays, however, not being exempt. Both at Rome and Constantinople, therefore, the actual fast was but thirty-six days. Some Churches still continued the three weeks’ fast, but by the middle of the 5th century most of these divergences had ceased and the usages of Antioch-Constantinople and Rome-Alexandria had become stereotyped in their respective spheres of influence.

The thirty-six days, as forming a tenth part of the year and therefore a perfect number, at first found a wide acceptance. But the inconsistency of this period with the name Quadragesima, and with the forty days’ fast of Christ, came to be noted, and early in the 7th century four days were added, by what pope is unknown, so that Lent in the West would begin henceforth on Ash Wednesday.

About the same time the cycle of paschal solemnities was extended to the ninth week before Easter by the institution of stational masses for
Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima Sundays. At Constantinople, too, three Sundays were added and associated with the Easter festival in the same way as the Sundays in Lent proper. These three Sundays were added in the Greek Church also, and the present custom of keeping an eight weeks’ fast (i.e. exactly 8 X 5 days), now universal in the Eastern Church, originated in the 7th century. The Greek Lent begins on the Monday of Sexagesima, with a week of preparatory fasting, known as the “butter-week”; the actual fast, however, starts on the Monday of Quinquagesima this week being known as “the first week of the fast” The period of Lent is still described as “the six weeks of the fast”, the seven days of Holy Week not being reckoned in.