Lent History

By: Ron Lagerquist

“Lent is a period of time set aside for penitence, self-examination and spiritual renewal, preparing the heart for the ensuing great feast on Easter Sunday.”

Lent is one of the oldest observations on the Christian calendar and today, in our 21st century, millions of people still take lent fasting very seriously. The word Lent is derived from the Anglo-Saxon word Lencten, which means spring. Roman Catholic Lent starts on Ash Wednesday, March 1, and runs for 40 days, excluding Sundays, ending at sundown on the 13th of April with the beginning of the mass of the Lord’s Supper. Lent is observed in a handful of Protestant denominations, namely Anglicans and Episcopalians, but the majority who practice lent are Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Churches. 

The idea of Lent is a period of time set aside for penitence, self-examination and spiritual renewal, preparing the heart for the ensuing great feast on Easter Sunday. During this time the participants are asked to give up an earthly pleasure as a sacrifice and penance to God. Unlike the Eastern Orthodox Churches, the Roman Catholic Church has relaxed the historically stringent requirements of Lent. Today, one can simply give up chocolate or coffee and feel a sense of participation.

Lent’s Evolving History

As early as 325AD, the Council of Nicea discussed a 40-day Lenten period. Forty days is a significant number in the bible. Moses and Elijah spent forty days in the wilderness, Nineveh was given forty days to repent, but most importantly, Jesus fasted forty days in the desert as preparation for ministry and to face His foe, Satan.

In the fourth century, Christianity became the state religion in Rome. There was a great influx of new Church members and the Church became concerned there would be a weakening of their core values. Therefore the 40 day Lenten fast with three hour a day classes became compulsorily before Baptism on Easter’s Eve. The observance was strict; only one meal a day near evening, and it could not include any animal products.

By 800AD, the ritual of Lent was becoming more lenient. Church members were now permitted to eat at 3PM. By 1400AD, you could eat at noon. As time went on, fish was allowed. Finally in 1966, the Roman Catholic Church had reduced the restricted fast to two days: Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Conversely, the Eastern Orthodox form of Lent is still quite strict to this day.

Mardi Gras

Parades, floats, beads, masks, revelry and New Orleans all come to mind when mentioning the name Mari Gras. Actually this carnival is celebrated all over the world and has a long history. Ancient Greeks would kill a goat, cut the hide into strips, run naked through planted fields while priests of the Greek god Pan would lash there skin with the bloody goat whips. A part of their spring fertility rite, it was accompanied with lewdness, drunkenness and orgies. In the early days of the Church, Leaders were appalled by such practices. This rite was considered perverted even by pagan standards, and they tried to put it to a stop. The Church was largely unsuccessful so they tried a new tactic. The early Church incorporated this spring rite as an acceptable feast before the Lenten season. The Church named it Carnival, which comes from the Latin words carne vale, meaning “farewell to the flesh.” The French named it Mardi Gras, which means, Fat Tuesday, a day of gorging oneself on meat, milk and eggs as a prelude to 40 days of abstinence.

Related Article: Keep Lent Fasting Real

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