The first time I ever heard about Lent I had no idea what it was or what it meant. I was probably about 8 or 9 years old sitting in a Sunday School class when somewhere amidst the random topics one might hear in a large gathering of 8 year olds one of my friends started talking about what he was giving up for Lent. I thought he meant lint, like what I had in my pockets and remember thinking it strange he would give something up for small collections of fuzz. I mean, I would gladly give up something for a G.I. Joe figure or a super soaker…but fuzz? Who in their right mind would give up soda, chocolate or TV for fuzz? Obviously, his priorities were way out of whack.
Obviously, I had no idea what Lent was. My non-Catholic, evangelical church upbringing never told me about such things. It wasn’t until I was well into my adult years that I truly began to understand the meaning behind Lent and why it is important. So, in order to eliminate any confusion between observing the Lenten season and staring at pocket fuzz, let’s explore some of the history behind Lent.
For some history of the word, lets turn to a few online sources:
This word initially simply meant spring (as in the German language Lenz and Dutch lente) and derives from the Germanic root for long because in the spring the days visibly lengthen.
Lent, Online Etymology Dictionary.
So, Lent has roots in the turning of the seasons. The days start to get longer, lengthening the time we can spend outside. If you squint you can probably see the connection between the word Lent and the words length or long. So how about the 40 days, how is that significant?
Traditionally Lent is the 40 days before Easter (excluding Sundays), beginning on Ash Wednesday. Why exclude Sundays? Sundays are considered mini Easter Sundays and you always break the fast to celebrate on Easter recognizing the resurrection of Christ. The origins of observing Lent and the settling on the length of 40 days are pretty murky as there was much diversity in the observances of the early Church. Fasting from food was always a big part of the Holy Week and Easter celebrations. It seems that the fasting expanded from the Easter weekend, to the whole week before and eventually up to the 40 days we are familiar with. It does seem that by the 4th century that observing the 40 days of Lent had become widely observed and recommended specifically by St. Athanasius. As for how the church settled on 40 days, the number 40 is widely used in scripture to denote sacred lengths of time, so it’s choice is not too surprising. Moses was on Mt. Sinai for 40 days, the flood was caused by 40 days and nights of rain, the Hebrews wandered in the desert for 40 years and Jesus fasted in the wilderness for 40 days before his temptation.
Still it has been used from the Anglo-Saxon period to translate the more significant Latin term quadragesima (French carême, Italian quaresima, Spanish cuaresma), meaning the “forty days”, or more literally the “fortieth day”. This in turn imitated the Greek name for Lent, tessarakoste (fortieth), a word formed on the analogy of Pentecost (pentekoste), which last was in use for the Jewish festival before New Testament times.
-NewAdvent.com Catholic Encyclopedia: Lent
I’m glad we’ve settled on calling it Lent. Quadragesima is a mouthful.
It is generally believed that Easter was the time when new converts were baptized and initiated into the Church. Joining the church in the early Church was a lot longer process than the typical “sinners prayer” or membership class we might be familiar with today. It was a long process that featured a lot of teaching and discipling. You could not even participate in the Eucharist/Communion and certain parts of a service until fully initiated through baptism. Lent then became a time for the prospective initiates to fast and spiritually prepare themselves for their Easter baptism and initiation into the Church body.
Currently, Lent is still a time of fasting often from various types of food for many Christians around the world. Because the Lenten fast lasts 40 days people will often restrict themselves to only having one meal throughout the day. However, the practice of fasting varies greatly and now many people choose to fast from “something” rather than just food. Television, coffee, chocolate, Facebook, cell phones, elevators, alcohol, credit cards, etc. Today people often choose to eliminate the use of something from their life for 40 days that may be getting in the way of their relationship with God. Counter to that is often the choice to replace what their fasting from with some kind of spiritual discipline. Prayer, scripture reading, acts of service or contributions to charity.
I like how this prayer of St. Nicholas of Flüe captures the spirit of the Lenten season.
My Lord and my God, take from me everything that distances me from you.
My Lord and my God, give me everything that brings me closer to you.
My Lord and my God, detach me from myself to give my all to you.
-St. Nicholas of Flüe
May it be your prayer, our prayer, as we prepare our hearts and minds during Lent.