“When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites. They neglect their appearances so that they may appear to others as fasting. Amen I say unto you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you may not appear to be fasting, except to your Father who is hidden. And your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you.” (Mathew 6:16-18)
The Christian Lent season is often a time of complete spiritual retreat to be reunited spiritually with our creator. With a deep sense of humility before God and a realization of our mortality, Lent is a period of deep, intense, internal and interiorized spiritual surrender to God in order to be in union with Him and know Him more. A period of prayer and spiritual giving, the Lent period is also a private and public space for us to live, know, and feel the unjust and immoral class division among us. Thus in going without food for forty days and forty nights we put ourselves in the position of the poor and needy and we know in practice what it is to be in NEED because for forty days and forty nights HE, Jesus fasted and HE knew what it means to be without food.
And in fasting we are gently enjoined not to look gloomy for it is a private and interiorized spiritual act done because of who our God is. Given the diversity of the Christian paths, Lent is often observed differently. But the history dates back in centuries and sometimes needs to be re-told. Hence, this week I request for the indulgence of our readers to allow me present the history of Lent as told by a historian of church history. We will surely be back with our regular conversations for we are devoted always to the ethical and moral path. Please kindly allow me to present:
The origins of Lent and Ash Wednesday By Joseph F. Kelly.
When Catholics begin their observation of Lent on Ash Wednesday [Feb.13], they will be continuing a tradition that goes back to the earliest days of the church. Jesus’ immediate disciples celebrated only one day, the Lord’s Day (Sunday), which they observed weekly in honor of Jesus’ resurrection. But by the early second century, as the church had spread throughout much of the Roman world and had grown immensely in size, the bishops decided that they should set aside one Sunday for a special remembrance of Christ’s resurrection. This, of course, is the feast we call Easter, a word derived from “eostre”, an Old English word for “spring”. The bishops soon realized that the Gospel Passion narratives did not provide enough information to determine the exact date of Christ’s crucifixion and therefore of the resurrection, so they worked out a liturgical formula for its celebration, which is why the date of Easter can occur during a period of several weeks. This new feast caught on quickly and that caused the bishops to consider something else. The Old Testament recounts how the ancient Jews would fast on several occasions, for example, to make themselves worthy for the Day of Atonement. The bishops thought it would be beneficial for Christians to do likewise. Initially the fast lasted for only three days, the triduum of Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday. By the third century it had extended to what we now call Holy Week. But in 325, when the bishops of the Roman world met at the first ecumenical council at Nicaea, they recommended a fast of 40 days. Why? The decrees of the council do not say, but there are several possible explanations. Scripture tells us of three 40-day fasts, one by Moses, one by prophet Elijah and, most importantly, one by Jesus in the desert during his retreat before commencing his public ministry. All these fasts has importance, nut Jesus’ had a special one because his occurred after his baptism in the Jordan River by John the Baptist.
Keeping the link by revising the process, by the third century bishops were requiring a 40-day preparatory fast for candidates for Christian baptism. This practice probably influenced the Episcopal decision at Nicaea. Another possibility might have been the practices of the monastic communities. The Christian monastic movement began in late third-century Egypt, and it caught on quickly as hundreds and then thousands of believers joined desert communities. These monks observed a40-day fast before Easter. Whatever reason or reasons moved the bishops, the 40-day fast became universally observed by believers. We know this period as Lent, but, like Easter, this is not a word from early Christianity. “Lent” comes from the Old English word “lencten”, a word for “spring”. This is a sensible name not only because Lent occurs mostly in the spring but also because Christ’s resurrection coincided with warmth and brightness and new life.
So, now the church had a 40-day fast? Not exactly. The bishops believed that all Christians should fast for forty days before Easter, but was it reasonable to ask people to go for so long with so little food? Such a demand could deprive farmers and herders of the strength to work the land and care for flocks. There also was the issue of health: Some people might find it strenuous to fast for so long. Combining prudence with pastoral care, the bishops decided to keep 40 days while modifying the fast to allow people to eat food on certain days of the week.
The Western, Latin-speaking churches suspended the fast on Sundays – as is still done in Roman Catholicism today. The Eastern, Greek-speaking churches suspended the fast on Saturdays and Sundays. But this approach made it impossible to have 40 days of fasting in a 40-day period, so bishops lengthened the tenure of Lent to include those days when the fast was suspended, thus preserving 40 days of fasting. The Eastern bishops chose a preparatory period of seven weeks, excluding Saturdays and Sundays. The Western bishops, led by popes, chose a period of six weeks, excluding Sundays.
But even this step did not settle matters completely. Because Jesus rose on a Sunday, the bishops inaugurated the period with the Sunday exactly six weeks before Easter Sunday, that is, what we now call the first Sunday in Lent. But six weeks of six days of fasting led to only 36 days of fasting. To be sure, that is not a small amount, but it loses it loses the symbolism of the 40-day fast of Jesus. By the seventh century, several Western churches, including Rome, restored the 40-day symbolism by adding 4 extra days of fasting before the initial Sunday. This meant that the fasting, that is, Lent, started on a Wednesday.
Scholars cannot be sure when marking believers’ forehead with ashes as a sign of penitence started, but it began no later than the 10th century. Soon this day became known as Ash Wednesday, which now commences the Lenten season.
Kelly the author of this unabridged essay is a professor of church history at Jesuit-run Carroll University in Cleveland, OH, USA.
The article is culled from The Catholic Sun (February 7, 2013, page 6), which is published by the Catholic Diocese of Syracuse, New York