Lent

(Old English Lencten, German Lenz, “spring,” Lat. Quadragesima). The period of forty days' fasting before Easter. One or two days of fasting in preparation for Easter is attested by Irenaeus in the third century, but the earliest reference to a period of forty days (Greek) as the name for Lent occurs in the fifth canon of the Council of Nicea (325). “Forty” no doubt was suggested by the forty days' fast of Jesus, while the fast itself may have been originally part of the preparation of candidates for baptism on Easter night. The length of the fast differed. In Rome in the fifth century, for example, it was three weeks, and in the Eastern churches seven. Not until the seventh century was a period of forty days determined in the West.

Originally the fast was rigorous. One meal a day was allowed, and all flesh and “white meats” forbidden. Gradually the fast was relaxed in the West from the eighth/ninth centuries. By the sixteenth century the evening office of Vespers was advanced to before midday so that the rule of not eating before Vespers could be maintained. A light meal (collation) was also allowed.

In the Roman Catholic Church the Lenten Masses reflect the baptismal associations of the fast by their references to water, raising from the dead, and light. Penitence is another ancient aspect of Lent, deriving from the practice of publicly excluding penitents from Communion at the beginning of Lent and their public reconciliation on Maundy Thursday. The Passion theme dominated the fast. Eastern Church liturgies reflect the same themes. Roman Catholics now usually keep only Ash Wednesday and Good Friday as fast days, but Lent remains a time of penitence.

The Book of Common Prayer prescribes the observance of Lent with fasting. The Tractarians revived the observance in the nineteenth century after a period of comparative disuse, and it is now widespread in the Anglican Church with the emphasis on penitential practice and private devotion at the discretion of the individual. Lent forms part of the Lutheran church year and is observed in some measure in other Protestant churches.