Every year as the season of Lent begins there are a variety of essays, articles, posts, and tweets about Lent and its observance. This season may be foreign to many people, whether they are Christians or not, so there are inevitably questions about what this season is and what it is for. If you are looking to learn more about the season of Lent, especially how it originated, you came to the right place.
Additionally, In the world I inhabit there are annual conversations about whether Lent should or shouldn’t be practiced since it is a Roman Catholic invention and Reformed Protestants should not engage in Roman Catholic practices. The problem with this line of thinking is that Lent is not a Roman Catholic invention. Lent is an ancient Christian practice whose roots trace back as far as we have historical evidence to trace them. Thus, rejecting Lent due to its associations with Roman Catholicism is faulty reasoning.
This post is a part of these ongoing discussions. In it I want to give some foundational information about the origins of Lent and also to put forth a certain argument for the practice of Lent by way of exploring its history. As I am a credentialed historical theologian, this historical theological exploration is both my specialty and my passion. Therefore in this post I would like to answer one question: What are the historical origins of Lent: how far back does the observance of Lent go, and what, if anything, can we say about ancient Lenten practices?
Lenten Origins Found in Holy Week
The origins of the season of Lent go as far back as the mid second century. While the 40 day penitential season cannot be traced further back than the early 4th c., that season developed from earlier, shorter, preparatory fasts that preceded Easter. In several sources, including the Didascalia Apostolorum, The Apostolic Tradition, and a Festal Letter by Dionysius of Alexandria, we find that there was a one, two, or six day preparatory fast leading up to Easter, depending on the time and location. This places the practice of preparatory fasting as early as the first half of the third century (200-250 AD). If these sources mention those seasons as established practices, then it seems safe to say that the origins of these practices would stretch further into the latter half of the second century, perhaps even further.
From Holy Week to Quadragesima
By the early 4th century, this six day preparatory fast had become Holy Week and the penitential period was extended to 40 days symbolizing the fasts of Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. We see this in several prominent examples.
The first of these examples is St. Athanasius (c. 297-373 AD). Athanasius is an early church father who is held in high regard by all Christians. There are two main reasons for this respect. First of all, Athanasius is considered to be the champion of Nicene orthodoxy against the early heresy of Arianism, which taught that Jesus was not God but the highest of all created beings. Athanasius was present at the Council of Nicaea (from which we have been bequeathed the ancient and venerable Nicene Creed), and he continued to fight for the orthodox view of the Trinity and the deity of Christ throughout his life, suffering much on account of the faith including two separate exiles from his pastoral see.
The second reason we revere Athanasius is because of his famous 39th Festal Letter written to his parishioners in Alexandria in the year 367. This letter is precious to all Christians because this letter is the first articulation of the entire New Testament canon. This letter should be further appreciated by Protestants because in it he excluded as noncanonical the deuterocanonical books, which are commonly call the Apocrypha. For this reason, Athanasius is known to some as the Father of the Biblical Canon.
While the above two facts are widely known and celebrated, what is not commonly understood is that Athanasius was an ardent promoter of the adoption of the season of Lent. In his 2nd Festal Letter of 330 A.D., some 37 years before the more famous one just mentioned, Athanasius wrote this to his flock:
We begin the fast of forty days on the 13th of the month Phamenoth (Mar. 9). After we have given ourselves to fasting in continued succession, let us begin the holy Paschal week on the 18th of the month Pharmuthi (April 13). Then resting on the 23rd of the same month Pharmuthi (April 18), and keeping the feast afterwards on the first of the week, on the 24th (April 19), let us add to these the seven weeks of the great Pentecost, wholly rejoicing and exulting in Christ Jesus our Lord, through Whom to the Father be glory and dominion in the Holy Ghost, for ever and ever.
Given this evidence, if one was so inclined one might make the argument that the observance of Lent was older than the completion of the biblical canon. While I personally would not go so far as to make this particular argument, I would point out that those who lay claim to Athanasius and his Festal letter as proof for the biblical canon might also take a look at an earlier letter of his that shows his support for keeping the 40 day fast of Lent. The fact that both the fine tuning of the canon and the development of the church year were occurring at the same exact time is notable.
While this quotation is a significant piece of historical evidence, we have to be careful not to overstate its reach. Though this quote reveals to us Athanasius’ desire for a 40 day fast preceding Easter we also find from later letters that this was a change of practice in Alexandria that he was attempting to introduce there. Yet from other sources, including his letter to Bishop Serapion, we find that at least by 340 AD the practice was more widespread. So it seems safe to say that the by the early to mid 4th century, the practice of observing a 40 day fast in preparation for Easter was becoming the norm.
Lent in the Council of Nicaea
The prevalence of Lent by the mid-fourth century is supported by evidence from the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. The Council of Nicaea was the first ecumenical council of the church that laid down for all Christians the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity. While the Council did not mandate the observance of Lent, it did acknowledge the existence of a 40 day preparatory liturgical season preceding Easter. In Canon 5 the council decreed that local synods should meet twice a year, “One before Lent (Greek: tessarakosta; Latin: quadragesima; literally: 40 days), so that all pettiness being set aside, the gift offered to God may be unblemished.” This piece of evidence seems significant, because it confirms that Athanasius’ practice was not isolated in 330AD. If the Nicene Fathers referred to Lent in their deliberations, it must have been a pretty widely accepted practice.
Thus, not only was Lent being developed at the same time as the finalizing of the biblical canon, we also find in that era the settling of the doctrine of the Trinity. Note that neither of these pillars, Trinity and Canon, are explicitly mentioned in the Bible. Yet both can be definitively said to be ancient determinations of the church, articulating what the scriptures had already clearly taught. Should the development of the Church Year also fall under that banner, a pillar of Christian practice laid down by the church in the 4th century as an articulation of clear biblical teaching? I would argue so.
Creed, Canon, and Church Year
In conclusion, what are we to take away from this historical evidence? I argue that we should take from it that Lent is a very ancient and universal practice of the Christian Church. Evidence for it is as ancient as evidence for the biblical canon and our most important statement of Trinitarian orthodoxy. Nevertheless, I am not arguing that keeping Lent is as important as the canon of the New Testament or the belief in the Trinity, and neither am I arguing that Lent is as old as these things. This is because Athanasius’ 39th Festal letter is not the origin of the biblical canon. This concept existed far before the year 367 and was held, evidently, by the first Christian disciples of the 1st century. Likewise, neither was the Trinity invented at the council of Nicaea. Trinitarian belief was a part of the Christian faith from it’s earliest days after the resurrection of Jesus. Lent is a 4th century creation. Yet, as we have seen, its roots go back into the second century and, as I have argued elsewhere, the church year itself has clear biblical justification.
Therefore, while the observance of Lent is not as ancient and venerable as the other two of the pillars of our faith it is nevertheless an ancient and respectable practice. Moreover, we see in Athanasius, the most prominent champion of both those pillars, an ardent champion and supporter of the adoption of Lent. If you hold St. Athanasius in high regard, consider this adjuration:
But I have further deemed it highly necessary and very urgent to make known to you that you should proclaim the fast of forty days to the brethren, and persuade them to fast; to the end that, while all the world is fasting, we who are in Egypt should not become a laughing-stock, as the only people who do not fast, but take our pleasure in those days… But, O, our beloved, whether in this way or any other, exhort and teach them to fast forty days. For it is even a disgrace that when all the world does this, those alone who are in Egypt, instead of fasting, should find their pleasure.
Sources: The Origins of the Liturgical Year, by Thomas J. Talley; The Second Festal Letter of Athanasius, accessed here; The 39th Festal Letter of Athanasius, accessed here; Athanasius’ April 340 letter to Serapion found in Les lettres festales de saint Athanase, edited by L. Lefort, pp 654-656; The Canons of the Council of Nicaea, in Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils by Norman P. Tanner.