Where Does Lent Come From, and Why Do We Celebrate it?

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.

I. Why is Lent Forty Days?

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.

But here’s something that isn’t explicit in Scripture, but which is fascinating nonetheless: “the earliest of Christians believed Jesus was dead in the grave for 40 hours.”  If you assume that Christ was in the Tomb from about 4 p.m. on Good Friday until dawn on Easter Sunday, 40 hours is about right. If that’s right, it would be a fascinating explanation for why the number 40 was such a significant number for preparation in both the Old and New Testament.

II. How Old Is Lent?

Kimberley explains:
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.

III. What About the Role of the Papacy?

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.

But here’s what makes this story so fascinating.  The churches of Asia Minor had ancient traditions related to Easter, and the penitential season prior to it, which differed from the rest of the Church.  The question facing the early Church was: should Easter always be celebrated on a Sunday, or should it be tied to the beginning of Passover?  While most of the Church said Sunday, the churches around Asia Minor said to do it based on Passover.

For some time, the Church simply tolerated a diversity of styles, but in the 190s A.D., Pope Victor I tried to impose uniformity.  He declared that the entire global Church had to do it on Sunday, and excommunicated those bishops who wouldn’t upset their local traditions, along with their entire dioceses.  While the pope certainly had the authority to do so, this seemed like overkill, and caused an outcry from other bishops (such as Irenaeus, who in addition to being a  “heroic theologian,” was Bishop of Lyons, France, and a staunch defender of the papacy’s Apostolic succession from St. Peter).
And note what’s bothering these other bishops.  It’s not the idea that the Bishop of Rome has the authority to discipline and even excommunicate anyone, anywhere in the Church, including other Bishops.  It’s that he’s using this authority in an imprudent way.  To think of it analogously: if a father grounded one of his kids for a month for having untied shoes, the other kids would probably balk, not because they question dad’s authority to ground, but the cavalier manner in which he used it.    All of this, properly understood, is an affirmation of papal authority in the early Church, particularly since Easter Sunday ended up winning out globally.
IV.  Is the 40 Day Period of Lent a Translation Error?
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.


  1. Thank you for this post! This is just what I needed after I read an article earlier today entitled “Christians Tailor Lent Outside Catholic Traditions.” It seems in this article, as well as in your critique of the one written by Mr. Kimberley, that Protestants definitely see the value in celebrating Lent. And they even want to participate in it to some extent, but they do not want to acknowledge EXACTLY where it comes from. I am, however, encouraged by your conclusion, and I hope that more and more of our separated brethren will continue to explore and investigate these matters, all the way home to Mother Church.

  2. This was a great article! It really creates a great defense for the Roman Catholic tradition. Then you go and say “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. ” I was with you until that line in the conclusion. Please be careful in painting with wide strokes when talking about Protestants. Martin Luther did not completely reject all church councils and all popes. As a Protestant, the period we are talking about is actually shared history. In fact, I took my Church History I course in seminary from the Jesuits (JSTB) because it is a source of common ground. Lent, Easter, and the other parts of the liturgical year are part of our history as Christians. I know that it is tempting to use a broad use of “Protestants” because there are churches that deny parts or all of church history. These “Protestants” are ignorant.

    In short, thank you again for a great article. I am sorry for the ignorant Protest-ants that try to deny Christian history.

  3. Thanks, Rev. Hans!

    I appreciate the criticism, too. For what it’s worth, I wasn’t trying to say that no Protestants celebrate Lent or Easter on those dates, or in that fashion.

    I recognize that many Protestants observe Lent and Easter, and I’m sure that some of these are aware that they do so because these are the customs established by the early papacy and Church Councils.

    But here, it seems (at least to me, as an outsider), that they do so because they happen to like a particular pope, Council, or custom. But these personal preferences can’t create a coherent mechanism to establish any unified date for Easter, or a particular time for Lent, precisely because they’re inherently personal. Others may not share this attraction to the pope, Council, or customs in question.

    Put another way, as a Catholic, I could say, “You need to follow this liturgical practice, because the Church said so in an authoritative manner.” That is, it’s not just a custom I happen to like, but a practice binding on my conscience as a Catholic. In contrast, you just say that “Martin Luther did not completely reject all church councils and all popes.” Well, certainly, Luther might have agreed with Pope Victor on the date of Lent, but what if his neighbor was sympathetic to Quartodecimanism? Both views can be traced to the second century, so on what basis should one triumph over the other?

    I’m glad that there are a growing number of Protestants who take Lent and Easter seriously, and I’m glad that there are a growing number that openly point to the early Church in defense of these practices. I think that this is an important step towards Christian unity. But the absence of any Body within Protestantism capable of behaving in the way that the early Church behaved on these issues troubles me. As always, I’m open to correction: if you can explain the basis on which Protestants need to have Lent and Easter (and in the manner laid out by Victor and First Nicea), I’d like to hear it.



  4. Thank you for the article on Lent and the question about ecclesiology.

    I understand your argument that the observation of the liturgical year presupposes we need a unifying authority, a Magisterium. And Jesus prayed that we may be one.

    Anglicans do not deny the necessity or authority of Church councils and many do not deny the authority of the successor of Peter. He alone was given the keys, the final say. Where that authority has been exercised in harmony with scripture, such as the observance of Lent and Easter we do comply.

    But Jesus went on to develop Peter’s role: asking him to share the work of binding and loosing with the other disciples, not to lord authority over others, and to feed his flock. The ultimate food is Jesus himself, the bread of life, the Word made Flesh.

    So, inherent in Peter’s stewardship is accountablity to God’s Word.

    I cannot speak for Protestantism as a whole, but in the Anglican tradition we ask three things of the Church in relation to Scripture:

    to recognize that it can err, just as Peter erred in understanding the significance of Moses and Elijah’s appearance at the transfiguration shortly after being given the keys;

    to limit what is required for Eucharistic communion to what can be proved from Scripture;

    “neither may (the Church) so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another.”

    So we will joyfully celebrate Easter and the liturgical seasons grounded on Biblical events. As our recent discussion of the Immaculate Conception demonstrated we respectfully, but sadly, remain separated.

  5. Pope Benedict’s invitation to Anglicans to come under his authority in 2009, the Apostolic Constitution Anglicanorum Coetibus, was received as a gracious offer by the church as a whole. We are acutely aware of how we are failing Jesus’ call to unity, and yet we are working to obey Paul’s instructions in Rom 12:18.

    It has been a great encouragement to me personally to discover the depths in what we commonly acknowledge as the deposit of faith, and to that end I am studying the Catechism and have found this blog a helpful forum to discuss questions raised in your posts when they overlap with questions I have about the Catechism.

    In his Anglicanorum Coetibus Pope Benedict observed:
    Nevertheless, many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside (the Catholic Church’s) visible confines

    and I would venture that the Anglican submission of Tradition to Scripture appears to us to be a key element of sanctification. We allow that the church can err and need pruning like a vine as Jesus taught in John 15:1-3. Although we long for permanence in tradition, like Peter wanting to build tents fitting for sukkot at the transfiguration, Jesus compares his church to a growing body or mustard tree.

    Dogma is necessary as it represents our clearest vision of God to date and we are to let our light shine. Yet that vision can grow clearer as God unfolds time; Paul compares his growth from childhood to maturity as moving from seeing in a mirror dimly to seeing face to face in 1 Cor 13:9 -12. The full revelation will not happen until our lives end, but there is growth during our earthly lives as individuals and as a church body.

    As God unrolls the scroll of history, is it possibile that new depths can be seen in Scripture necessitating changes in Tradition? I wonder whether Jesus’ instructions to the disciples to bind and loose in the kingdom of Heaven points to the need for development in dogma, just as a garment would need to be altered to fit a growing body.

    I do trust God to continue to lead the church. I believe that he has given the office of servant-stewardship to Peter, and believe that God intends us to demonstrate visible unity through Eucharistic communion. And so I will keep plugging away at the Catechism and work for unity in Truth. Is everything in the catechism infallible?

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