To observe Lent is to accept paganism — that is the usual comment or feedback heard from the anti-Catholics. Aside from Christmas Day, Halloween, Valentine’s Day, etc., Lent is also one of the commonly misinterpreted Catholic events by those closed-minded Protestants. But how did the observance of Lent come in existence?
Primarily, the English word Lent is a shortened form of Anglo-Saxon “lencten” which means “spring” and “lenctentid” which literally means not only “Springtide” but also the word for “March,” the month in which the majority of Lent falls, as its cognates in the Germanic languages still do today: German Lenz and Dutch Lente. In modern Greek, the term is Σαρακοστή, derived from earlier Τεσσαρακοστή, meaning “fortieth”. The corresponding word in Latin “quadragesima (fortieth)” is the origin of the term used in Latin-derived languages and in some others: for example, Spanish cuaresma, Filipino kuwaresma, Portuguese quaresma, French carême, Italian quaresima, Romanian păresimi, Croatian korizma, Irish Carghas, and Welsh C(a)rawys.
Lent is a solemn observance with the very purpose of self-examination and penitence, demonstrated by self-denial, in preparation for Easter, the great feast of Christ’s resurrection. In the desire to renew the liturgical practices of the Church, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy of Vatican Council II stated, “The two elements which are especially characteristic of Lent — the recalling of baptism or the preparation for it, and penance — should be given greater emphasis in the liturgy and in liturgical catechesis. It is by means of them that the Church prepares the faithful for the celebration of Easter, while they hear God’s word more frequently and devote more time to prayer” (no. 109). The season is observed from Ash Wednesday to Holy Saturday, which makes it last for forty-six (46) days, if the six (6) Sundays are included, but only forty (40), if they are excluded, because there was no obligation to fast on the six (6) Sundays in Lenten season.
However, why FORTY days?
The number Forty (40) has a significant usage in the sacred Scripture. It is used by God to represent a period of testing or judgment (the length of time necessary to accomplish some major part of Gods plan in his dealings with various portions of mankind). Below are the biblical citations for the usage of number 40:
⚫ The rains (in Noah’s day) fell for 40 days and nights (Genesis 7:4).
⚫ Israel ate Manna for 40 years (Exodus 16:35).
⚫ Moses was with God in the mount, 40 days and nights (Exodus 24:18).
⚫ Moses was again with God 40 days and 40 nights (Exodus 34:28).
⚫ Moses led Israel from Egypt at age 80 (2 times 40), and after 40 years in the wilderness, died at 120 (3 times 40; Deuteronomy 34:7).
⚫ The spies searched the land of Canaan for 40 days (Numbers 13:25).
⚫ Therefore, God made Israel wander for 40 years (Numbers 14:33-34).
⚫ 40 stripes was the maximum whipping penalty (Deuteronomy 25:3).
⚫ God allowed the land to rest for 40 years (Judges 3:11).
⚫ God again allowed the land to rest for 40 years (Judges 5:31).
⚫ God again allowed the land to rest for 40 years (Judges 8:28).
⚫ Abdon (a judge in Israel) had 40 sons (Judges 12:14).
⚫ Israel did evil; God gave them to an enemy for 40 years (Judges 13:1).
⚫ Eli judged Israel for 40 years (1 Samuel 4:18).
⚫ Goliath presented himself to Israel for 40 days (1 Samuel 17:16).
⚫ Saul reigned for 40 years (Acts 13:21).
Ishbosheth (Saul’s son) was 40 when he began reign (2 Samuel 2:10).
⚫ David reigned over Israel for 40 years (2 Samuel 5:4, 1 Kings 2:11).
⚫ The holy place of the temple was 40 cubits long (1 Kings 6:17).
⚫ 40 baths (measurement) was size of lavers in Temple (1 Kings 7:38).
⚫ The sockets of silver are in groups of 40 (Exodus 26:19 & 21).
⚫ Solomon reigned same length as his father; 40 years (1 Kings 11:42).
⚫ Elijah had one meal that gave him strength 40 days (1 Kings 19:8).
⚫ Ezekiel bore the iniquity of the house of Judah for 40 days (Ezekiel 4:6).
⚫ Jehoash (Joash) reigned 40 years in Jerusalem (2 Kings 12:1).
⚫ Egypt to be laid desolate for 40 years (Ezekiel 29:11-12).
⚫ Ezekiel’s (symbolic) temple is 40 cubits long (Ezekiel 41:2).
⚫ The courts in Ezekiel’s temple were 40 cubits long (Ezra 46:22).
⚫ God gave Nineveh 40 days to repent (Jonah 3:4).
⚫ Jesus fasted 40 days and nights (Matthew 4:2).
⚫ Jesus was tempted 40 days (Luke 4:2, Mark 1:13).
⚫ Jesus remained on earth 40 days after resurrection (Acts 1:3).
⚫ Women are pregnant for 40 weeks (time of testing).
LENT is a period of prayer and fasting and it is fitting for Christians to imitate their Lord with a forty day period. Christ used a forty day period of prayer and fasting to prepare for his ministry, which culminated in his death and resurrection, and thus it is fitting for Christians to imitate him with a forty day period of prayer and fasting to prepare for the celebration of his ministry’s climax, Good Friday (the day of the crucifixion) and Easter Sunday (the day of the resurrection).
Thus the Catechism of the Catholic Church states:
“‘For we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sinning’ [Heb 4:15]. By the solemn forty days of Lent the Church unites herself each year to the mystery of Jesus in the desert.” (CCC 540).
Be informed as well that the observance of Lent does not only exist in the modern days. It can be traced almost all the way back to the disciples. This is quite extraordinary. The heroic theologian St. Irenaeus (who died in 203 AD and was a disciple of St. Polycarp who himself was a disciple of St. John the Beloved) wrote a letter to Pope Victor I. This letter was recorded by the early church historian Eusebius of Caesarea (263-339 AD). Irenaeus is telling Victor about their Easter celebrations. In this letter he writes:
“The dispute is not only about the day, but also about the actual character of the fast. Some think that they ought to fast for one day, some for two, others for still more; some make their ‘day’ last 40 hours on end. Such variation in the observance did not originate in our own day, but very much earlier, in the time of our forefathers” (Eusebius, History of the Church, V, 24).
The importance of the passage, nevertheless, remains that since the time of “our forefathers” — always an expression for the apostles — a 40-day period of Lenten preparation existed. To twist the truth, anti-Catholics also used the letter above to argue that it was Tyrannius Rufinus of Aquileia (340-410 AD), a monk, historian, and theologian, who started the 40-day observance of Lent rather than just 40 hours when he, according to them, misinterpreted the said Greek letter to Latin. But that is, of course not true. Remember that the Ecumenical Council of Nicea (325 AD) made it very clear in its 5th Canon: “. . . that the provincial synods should be held each year . . . one before Lent.” NOTE: The word used for Lent in this fifth canon is tessarakonta (in the original Greek), which means “forty”. And so? Forty-day Lent was already treated as a commonly-accepted fact even before the birth of Rufinus.
In addition to it, below are the testimonies of other early Christians on the observance of Lent:
In his second Festal Letter (330 AD), St. Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, wrote the following:
“We begin the fast of forty days on the 13th of the month Phamenoth. After we have given ourselves to fasting in continued succession, let us begin the holy Paschal week on the 18th of the month Pharmuthi. Then resting on the 23rd of the same month Pharmuthi, and keeping the feast afterwards on the first of the week, on the 24th, 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.”
He also added in his letter, written in Rome, to Alexandria in 339 AD:
“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.”
NOTE: Given this evidence, one can say that the observance of Lent was older than the biblical canon.
In the Spring of 347 AD, St. Cyril of Jerusalem (313-386 AD) delivered a series of teachings (Catechetical Lectures) to the catechumens of Jerusalem, in which he said:
“This charge I give you, before Jesus the Bridegroom of souls come in . . . A long notice is allowed you; you have forty days for repentance . . .”
NOTE: During the time of St. Cyril, the baptism of the catechumens was (not only) greatly held on Easter.
St. Leo I (390-461 AD), bishop of Rome, in his 39th Sermon on Lent, said:
“For knowing that the most hollowed days of Lent are now at hand, in the keeping of which all past slothfulnesses are chastised, all negligences alerted for, they direct all the force of their spite on this one thing, that they who intend to celebrate the Lord’s holy Passover may be found unclean in some matter, and that cause of offence may arise where propitiation ought to have been obtained.”
St. Gregory I (540-604 AD), bishop of Rome, in his Lenten Reflection, he said:
“The glory of these forty days we celebrate with songs of praise; For Christ, by whom all things were made, Himself has fasted and has prayed. Alone and fasting Moses saw the loving God who gave the law. And to Elijah, fasting, came the steeds and chariots of flame. So Daniel trained his mystic sight, delivered from the lion’s might. And John, the Bridegroom’s friend, became the herald of Messiah’s name. Then grant us, Lord, like them to be full oft in fast and prayer with Thee; Our spirits strengthen with Thy grace, and give us joy to see Thy face.”
BUT SHOULD CHRISTIANS FAST?
Let the sacred Scripture speaks:
“The disciples of St. John the Baptist came, one day, to Jesus, and said to Him: ‘Why do we and the pharisees fast often, but Thy disciples do not fast?’ And Jesus said to them: ‘Can the children of the Bridegroom mourn, as long as the Bridegroom is with them? But the days will come, when the Bridegroom shall be taken away from them, and then they shall fast.” (Luke 5:33)
In whatever way the season of Lent is observed, let it humble you so Jesus can be the center of your life and not you.
Remember, “those who worship the Lord on a special day do it to honor him. Those who eat any kind of food do so to honor the Lord, since they give thanks to God before eating. And those who refuse to eat certain foods also want to please the Lord and give thanks to God” (Romans 14:6).