The Catholic Defender: The History of Lent


I left college in the winter of 1979, and moved south of Branson Missouri to Northern Arkansas to a nearby town, Harrison Arkansas. I would live there nearly five years before finally signing up with the United States Army. I recall one day in 1980, I received a phone call from a local resident of Harrison

Arkansas who was not happy with my strong Catholic Faith.

This Gentleman claimed to have been raised a Catholic, went to twelve years of Catholic school, but was now a practicing Jehovah’s Witness. His real purpose of calling me was because I defended a local radio host who happened to say, “Merry Christmas” to a caller. The Caller had responded that she was not celebrating what she thought was a “Pagan” holiday. I responded to the Harrison Newspaper, and wrote a letter to the editor defending Christmas. This was when I received the phone call.

It was not long into the conversation that the Gentleman became very impatient, he told me that if I wanted to remain Catholic, I could leave Harrison? He tried to sell me his belief that there was no historical evidence supporting Christmas or Lent. We have covered Christmas fairly exhaustively on Deepertruth, so today, because it is Ash Wednesday, I want to share something of the history of Lent.

From the earliest times, Christians have walked the steps of our Lord on His way of the cross, the Via Dolorsa, the way of sorrows. According to the Liber Pontificals, a history of the popes beginning with St. Peter up to the 15th century, a work probably beginning with St. Jerome, credits Pope Telephorus (125-136 A.D.) with establishing the season of Lent.

We know that Jesus was crucified on April 3, 33 A.D., from that time on, the death of the Lord would always be identified with the “8th Day”, the Resurrection from the dead. You can see this depicted at the Vatican where you see the 8 blocks surrounding the obelisk at Vatican City. The early Popes utilized Easter to celebrate the Last Supper for the purpose of tying the “Breaking of the Bread” (the Mass) with the passion and death of Jesus. From tradition, the Mass has always been seen as a sacrifice. The Sacrifice of the Mass, Jesus is not being “re-crucified” as some people accuse, but that the command of the Lord, “Do this in memory of me” would be faithfully handed down.

The Pope called for a 7 week fast before Easter. Now consider this just 92 short years after the death of the Lord. The Pope did not simply dream this up, but was following what tradition had been already planted. St. Telephorus for example, followed what his predecessor, Pope Sixtus (115-125) observed celebrating the Last Supper on Easter Day as opposed to the traditional Jewish Passover Day, the 14th of Nissan. This would become known to Christians as “Good Friday” (3 April 33 A.D.).

It was at this point that the Gentleman who had called me began to become quite, as I continued. I told him of Early Church Father, St. Irenaeus of Lyons, who had been a disciple of St. Polycarp (a disciple of St. John the Apostle), that became Bishop of Lugdunum, modern day France. St. Irenaeus wrote to Pope St. Victor I (189-199 A.D.), the first Bishop of Rome that came from the Roman Province of Africa, “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).

St. Irenaeus was responding to the differences between East and West in celebrating Easter practices. During this time, the Church was suffering bitter persecutions. The Roman Persecutions are as follows: The First Persecution, Under Nero, A.D. 67, The Second Persecution, Under Domitian, A.D. 81, The Third Persecution, Under Trajan, A.D. 108, The Fourth Persecution, Under Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, A.D. 162, The Fifth Persecution, Commencing with Severus, A.D. 192, The Sixth Persecution, Under Maximus, A.D. 235, The Seventh Persecution, Under Decius, A.D. 249, The Eighth Persecution, Under Valerian, A.D. 257, The Ninth Persecution Under Aurelian, A.D. 274, The Tenth Persecution, Under Diocletian, A.D. 303.

It wasn’t until the Roman Emperor Contantine who with his Edict of Milan (313 A.D.) that gave Christians freedom that Lent would become more regularized. Contrast this time of persecution suffered by the Church with the age of the United States! The United States of America in all it’s history is 244 years old (1776-2020 July), the Roman persecutions run about 270 years just to put this in perspective.

Pope Dionysius of Alexandria (248-264 A.D.) was the first pope to be given the added title, “the great” observed by this time a tradition that during Lent, there was no eating of meats at all and Friday’s and Sundays were an absolute fast. This was much more stringent than what we practice today. The Pope also writes in his canonical epistle (AD 260), refers to the 91 fasting days implying that the observance of them had already become an established usage in his time.

A gathering of Roman laws, The Codex Theodosianus (312), a collection of laws of the Christian Roman Empire, was explicit in ordering that all actions at law should cease, and the doors of all courts of law be closed during those 15 days, seven days of Holy Week and seven days after Easter. This is an example why Anti-Catholics will accuse Constantine of establishing a religion, when in truth, he did not. These laws being implemented were now accommodating what the Church was growing through her traditions.

At the Council of Nicea (325 A.D.) there were two disciplinary canons that the 300 bishops of the Church ruled on. They felt it was important to have two synods to be held every year. One of them concerned the season of lent, “one before the 40 days of Lent.” Notice the 40 days?

From the earliest days of the Church, 40 had a certain value. In the New Testament, we recall that Jesus was tempted for 40 days and 40 nights (Matthew 4:2). Notice also that there were 40 days between Jesus’ Resurrection and Ascension (Acts 1:3). There are so many examples in the Old Testament, Moses was on Mount Sinai for 40 days and 40 nights (Exodus 24:18) and Goliath taunted Saul’s army for 40 days before David arrived to slay him (1 Samuel 17:16) to name a couple.

St. Athanasius (d. 373) in this “Festal Letters” beckoned his followers to keep a 40-day fast prior to the more intense fasting of Holy Week.

St. Cyril of Jerusalem (d. 386) in his teaching, very much resembled our current RCIA programs, there were 18 pre-baptismal instructions given to the catechumens during Lent.

St. Cyril of Alexandria (d. 444) in his series of “Festal Letters” also noted the practices and duration of Lent, emphasizing the 40-day period of fasting.

Finally, Pope St. Leo (d. 461) called for the faithful to “fulfill with their fasts the Apostolic institution of the 40 days,” again noting the apostolic origins of Lent. By this time, the Gentleman who called me on the phone began to yell at me telling me that if I wanted to remain Catholic, I should leave Harrison Arkansas. I just continued on…

Pope St. Gregory (d. 604), writing to St. Augustine of Canterbury, issued the following rule: “We abstain from flesh, meat, and from all things that come from flesh, as milk, cheese and eggs.”

Until the 600s, Lent began on Quadragesima (Fortieth) Sunday, but Gregory the Great (c.540-604) moved it to a Wednesday, now called Ash Wednesday, to secure the exact number of 40 days in Lent—not counting Sundays, which were feast days. Gregory, who is regarded as the father of the medieval papacy, is also credited with the ceremony that gives the day its name. As Christians came to the church for forgiveness, Gregory marked their foreheads with ashes reminding them of the biblical symbol of repentance (sackcloth and ashes) and mortality: “You are dust, and to dust you will return” (Gen 3:19).

Steeped into this tradition, I can not go on here without adding the following scripture: “So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the LORD. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, three days’ journey in breadth. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s journey. And he cried, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them. Then tidings reached the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, removed his robe, and covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. And he made proclamation and published through Nineveh, “By the decree of the king and his nobles: Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything; let them not feed, or drink water, but let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and let them cry mightily to God; yea, let every one turn from his evil way and from the violence which is in his hands. Who knows, God may yet repent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we perish not?” When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God repented of the evil which he had said he would do to them; and he did not do it.”

By the 800s, some Lenten practices were already becoming more relaxed. First, Christians were allowed to eat after 3 p.m. By the 1400s, it was noon. Eventually, various foods (like fish) were allowed, and in 1966 the Church only restricted fast days to Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.

Recently the American Bishops allows for the eating of meat on Friday’s (except Ash Wednesday and the Friday’s of Lent) if there are reasonable alternatives of sacrifice and remembrance on all Fridays. Here at Deepertruth we encourage the practice of eating Fish on Fridays. By this time, the Gentleman hung up on me and I never heard from him again. I can only hope that seeds were planted and that he would finally one day return to the one truth Faith, the Catholic Faith.

“Then I turned my face to the Lord God, seeking him by prayer and supplications with fasting and sackcloth and ashes.” Daniel 9:3

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