Where does Lent come from? How quickly did the Church start celebrating Lent? Why is it forty days? Was it always this long? What role have the popes played in fixing the Liturgical calendar for Lent and Easter?
Many of the answers to these questions are found, or at least hinted at, in a recent piece by Tim Kimberley of Reclaiming the Mind (the blog of the Protestant ministry Credo House), fittingly called A Short History of Lent. It’s a good start, but Kimberley gets a number of details wrong, and omits a whole lot. So let’s use the article as a jumping-off point, with corrections as needed.
|Temptations of Christ (San Marco) (12th c.)|
First off, why is Lent forty days? Because it’s solidly Biblical:
The number 40 has held significant importance throughout biblical history. The rains fell on Noah in the ark for 40 days and 40 nights. Moses was on top of Mount Sinai receiving the Ten Commandments for 40 days and 40 nights. Elijah walked 40 days and 40 nights to the mountain of the Lord. Jesus, most importantly, fasted and prayed for 40 days and 40 nights before starting his public ministry.
St. Irenaeus of Lyons (130 – 202)
We can trace Lent almost all the way back to the disciples. This is quite extraordinary. The heroic theologian Irenaeus (who died in 203AD and was discipled by Polycarp who himself was believed to be discipled by the Apostle John) wrote a letter to Victor I. This letter was thankfully recorded by the early church historian Eusebius. 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).
Now, it’s great that Kimberley explains the incredible antiquity of Lent, and he’s spot on in pointing to Irenaeus for proof. Irenaeus, a spiritual grandson of the Apostle John, is describing, in the late 100s, a pre-Easter fast that originated “very much earlier, in the time of our forefathers.” Granted, Irenaeus describes an intense forty hour fast, rather than a less intense fast spanning forty days, but the contours of Lent are clearly present, even here.
|Pope St. Victor I|
What Kimberley doesn’t mention is who, exactly, this “Victor I” is, in the section quoted above. Is this Victor I of Timbuktu? Emperor Victor I? As you might have guessed, Irenaeus is writing to Pope St. Victor I. In fact, in the very section of History of the Church that Kimberley is quoting from, Eusebius refers to him as “Victor, who presided over the church at Rome.” It’s not ambiguous.
|Richard Linderum, Monk Botanist (19th c.)|
The weakest spot in Kimberley’s otherwise pretty good article is his claim that “the 40 day period of Lent may be a translation mistake.” His argument is that the section I quoted above (in which Irenaeus describes a forty-hour fast) was mistranslated by Rufinus (340-410 A.D.) as a forty day fast:
A man named Rufinus translated Eusebius’ History of the Church from Greek into Latin. For some reason he put a punctuation mark between “40″ and “hours.” It gave people reading the letter of Irenaeus the idea that Irenaeus meant “40 – 24 hour days.”
But right after that, he writes:
By the 300′s AD a 40 day celebration period leading up to Easter appears to be widespread. The Council of Nicea (325AD) mentions two synods should be held each year, “one before the 40 days of Lent.”
Do you see the problem? The Council of Nicea, in 325, is treating it as a commonly-accepted fact that Lent is 40 days. Rufinus wasn’t even born yet. So unless the Nicene Fathers were time-travelers, Kimberley’s theory here doesn’t hold water.
So there you have it. Lent, in some form or another, has been around since incredibly early in the Church, possibly back to the time of the Apostles. The practice is rooted in Scripture, and by 325, its length of forty days prior to Easter seems to have been uniformly accepted throughout the Church. In the process, we saw the hand of both the early Papacy (Victor I, in the 190s), and the early Church Councils (the First Council of Nicea, in 325).
Sadly, Protestantism, in rejecting the authority of both Church Councils and the papacy, is left without a coherent mechanism to establish any unified date for Easter, or to establish any particular length of time for Lent. Having said that, it’s heartening that folks like Tim Kimberley are willing to explore the issue, and hopefully, others will follow him in investigating these matters.