The history of Lent

By  Doug Archer, Catholic Register Special
  • February 12, 2009

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, the period of penance, prayer and sacrifice that precedes the celebration of the resurrection of Christ. 

Since the earliest days of the church there is evidence of some form of Lenten preparation for Easter; but the duration and nature of this preparation took countless centuries to evolve and is still changing even today.  

As early as the second century, St. Irenaeus, an influential bishop and missionary, wrote to Pope Victor I complaining of controversy around the dating of Easter and the observance of a period of fasting leading up to this feast day. Some regional churches fasted for one day, others for several days and still others for 40 hours (most likely based on the traditional belief that Christ lay for 40 hours in the tomb).

It was another two centuries before the Council of Nicea tackled St. Irenaeus’ issues head-on. Assembled by the Roman Emperor Constantine in 325, bishops at Nicea developed a complex formula that placed the date for Easter on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the first day of spring. The canons emerging from that council also referenced a 40-day Lenten season of fasting. 


Ways to prepare for Lent

Written by Sheila Dabu, The Catholic Register

From pro-life prayer to eco-friendly fasting, there are plenty of ways of marking Lent. Here are but a few suggestions to prepare for Lent.

  • The 40 Days for Life campaign kicks off on Ash Wednesday (Feb. 25) where 125 communities in 34 U.S. states, four Canadian provinces and Australia are hosting pro-life events. The campaign consists of 40 days of prayer and fasting to end abortion, peaceful vigils outside abortion centres and community outreach. In Toronto, information meetings were held in February. For more information, contact Nicole Campbell at Campaign Life Coalition at (416) 204-9749 or visit

  • The Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace’s annual Share Lent campaign runs from Feb. 25 to April 12. The campaign raises funds to help partner communities in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East. For more information, call 1-800-494-1401 or visit

  • Development and Peace is also hosting THINKfast, a 25-hour educational and fund-raising fast for youth where participants collect pledges for each hour they plan to fast. The money raised helps the organization’s partners fight against global poverty and hunger. Its web site is:

  • KAIROS — Grand River, a local chapter of the KAIROS Canadian Justice Ecumenical Initiatives, has prepared a Lenten Carbon Fast Kit with tips on how to fast from carbon consumption during Lent. For details, visit

  • The Redemptorist Youth/Young Adult and Vocation Ministry Canada is hosting a “Liguori Circle” gathering in Toronto called “From Desserts to Desert: Setting Forth into the Lenten Journey.” The evening starts with Ash Wednesday Mass Feb. 25 at 7 p.m. at St. Patrick’s Church and a discussion at Redeemer House, 151 McCaul St. For more information, contact (416) 593-6520 or e-mail

  • Sacred Space, an online prayer web site based in Dublin, Ireland, will be launching a special Lent page which coincides with its 10th year anniversary on Ash Wednesday. The site will provide online prayers for a Lenten retreat. For more information, visit

  • Scarboro Missions will be hosting a meditation series called “Lenten Journey 2009.” On six Wednesdays during Lent, different speakers will offer reflections on Catholic sources of prayer and meditation such as talks on St. Theresa of Avila and St. John Bosco.

    The Wednesday talks begin on March 4 and end on April 8, from 7:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. For details call (416) 261-7135 ext. 266/239 or e-mail, or see

The word Lent is derived from the Anglo-Saxon words, lencten, meaning “spring,” and lenctentid, which was the word for “March,” the month in which the major part of this season of sacrifice falls. 

Why the period of 40 days was chosen is not entirely understood, but scholars believe it was influenced by biblical references to 40-day fasts by Moses on Mount Sinai and by Christ in the desert before He began His public ministry. Nonetheless, by the time of Pope Gregory the Great in the last decade of the sixth century, Christians in Rome and the West were generally observing six weeks of fasting prior to Easter.

But the math wasn’t quite right. Given that no fasting was to occur on Sundays — as Sunday was viewed as a weekly memorial of the Resurrection and therefore a day of celebration, not fasting — six weeks of fasting added up to 36 days, not 40. To correct this, Pope Gregory moved the start of Lent to a Wednesday.

Gregory is also credited with initiating the practice that gave the first day of Lent its name, Day of Ashes or simply, Ash Wednesday. To begin the season of fasting and repentance, Gregory marked the foreheads of his congregation with ashes, a biblical symbol for penance. It was also a reminder to early Christians of their mortality (“For you are dust, and to dust you shall return” Genesis 3:19) and the need to prepare for the afterlife.

A millennium and a half after Pope Gregory, the duration of the Lenten observance is still not immediately clear to many Catholics. Confusion stems from the fact that liturgically, Lent lasts 44 days. 

The traditional 40-day Lenten fast begins on Ash Wednesday, excludes Sundays and carries through to the night before Easter. But the General Norms for the Liturgical Year and Calendar, promulgated by Pope Paul VI in 1969, established slightly different parametres for the season of Lent. 

Returning to a long-held custom within the church, the Second Vatican Council re-established the three days before Easter as a separate holy time apart from Lent proper. Known as the Easter or Sacred Triduum, this three-day period begins with the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday and concludes at the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday, which is when the Easter season begins. So, from a liturgical perspective, Lent starts on Ash Wednesday and ends just before the Mass on Holy Thursday, the start of the Sacred Triduum. And it includes Sundays, making it 44 days in duration.

The nature of the Lenten observance has changed significantly over the millennia. While fasting seems always to have been part of the paschal preparation, there was significant latitude around abstention in the early centuries of the church. Some Christians fasted every day during Lent; others, every other week only. The more austere fasters subsisted on one or two meals a week; but many found that cutting back to one repast a day was a sufficient sacrifice. And while many abstained from meat and wine, some ate nothing but dry bread. 

Pope Gregory weighed in on this issue as well. He established the Lenten rule that Christians were to abstain from meat and all things that come from “flesh” such as milk, fat and eggs. And fasting meant one meal a day, normally taken in the mid-afternoon.

The prohibition around milk and eggs gave rise to the tradition of Shrove Tuesday or Mardi Gras (French for Fat Tuesday), which is celebrated the day before Ash Wednesday. On this day Christians would feast on the foods they were required to abstain from during Lent — gorging before the fast as it were — and pancakes became a popular meal for using up all the eggs and milk. 

Over time, concessions were made to the rules around fasting. In the 12th and 13th centuries, church authorities such as St. Thomas Aquinas accepted that a certain amount of “snacking,” in addition to one meal a day, should be allowed, particularly for those employed in manual labour. Eating fish was eventually allowed and even the consumption of meat and dairy products as long as a pious act was performed to compensate for the indulgence. 

Today the Catholic Code of Canon Law requires those 18 to 59 years of age to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.

And fasting means partaking of only one full meal, with snacks or smaller meals allowed at two other times through the day. It is also recommended that those 14 and over abstain from eating meat on Ash Wednesday and every Friday during Lent.

Lent is not just about fasting, however. Prayer, almsgiving and works of charity have always been encouraged by the church. And walking the Stations of the Cross (also called the Way of the Cross or Via Crucis) is a Lenten devotion that dates back to the fourth century.

Pilgrims to Jerusalem would retrace the steps that Christ walked on His way to Calvary, stopping at specific points to pray. When the Crusades in the Middle Ages prevented such sacred journeys to the Holy Land, the Via Crucis was reproduced in different parts of Europe. Chapels and markers (first referred to as Stations of the Cross around 1460) decorated with scenes of the Passion were erected in monasteries and in numerous cities to allow for miniature pilgrimages. Now images of the Stations of the Cross appear in almost all Catholic churches and are an integral part of many Lenten worship services.

The traditions and practices surrounding Lent are varied, but they have a common focus:  preparation for the celebration of Christ’s resurrection on Easter Sunday. Some would argue that at the start of this new Lenten season, that should be the focus of every Catholic.

(Archer is a freelance writer in Port Elgin, Ont.)

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