From the Anglo-Saxon Lencten, meaning springtime, Lent is the 40–day period of prayer, penance, and spiritual endeavor in preparation for Easter. Lent is not an end in itself; it exists only to lead to the paschal feast and so can be rightly understood only in the light of Easter. Easter gives meaning to Lent and shows it for what it is: the great paschal retreat of the Church. "The season of Lent has a twofold character: primarily by recalling or preparing for the celebration of Christian Initiation and by penance, it disposes the faithful, who more diligently hear the word of God and devote themselves to prayer, to celebrate the Paschal Mystery " (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy 109).
History. In the first three centuries, the period of fasting in preparation for the paschal feast did not exceed a week at the most; one or two days was the usual limit. Irenaeus of Lyons declares that in some places the faithful fasted on only one day, in others two days, and in still others, for 40 consecutive hours (Eusebius, Eccesiastical History 5:24; Patrologia Graeca. ed J. P. Migne [Paris 1857–66] 20:503). The third or fourth century Apostolic Tradition prescribes a two-day fast (33; B. Botte, ed., La Tradition apostolique de saint Hippolyte: Essai de reconstitution [Liturgiegeschichtliche Quellen und Forschungen, Münster 1909–40]  79).
The first mention of a period of 40 days occurs in the fifth canon of the Council of Nicaea (325), although some scholars dispute whether Lent is meant there. There is no question about the existence of the 40–day fast later on in that century, however, for St. athanasius often alluded to it in his festal letters. The Council of Laodicaea (360) expressly commanded its observance, and by the end of the fourth century the 40–day fast, called tessarakosté in Greek and quadragesima in Latin, was observed everywhere throughout both East and West.
Fasting. The custom may have originated in the prescribed fast of candidates for Baptism; it is certain that the catechumenate had a great deal to do with the formation of Lent. The number 40 was suggested no doubt by Christ's 40–day fast in the desert. The manner of reckoning the 40 days, however, varied in the different Churches. As a rule, the East spread Lent over seven weeks with both Saturday and Sunday exempt from fasting, whereas in the West there was a six–week period with only Sundays exempt. As a result there were only 36 actual fasting days, a situation that the Western Church remedied in the seventh century by adding four days beginning with Ash Wednesday. In the fourth century, however, the concern was not so much about whether there were 40 actual fasting days or not; the approach was to the season as a whole. The emphasis was not as much on the fasting as on the spiritual renewal that the preparation for Easter demanded. It was simply a period marked by fasting, but not necessarily one in which the faithful fasted every day. However, as time went on, more and more emphasis was laid upon fasting, and consequently there is apparent a more precise calculation of the 40 days.
During the early centuries (from the fifth century on especially) the observance of the fast was very strict. Only one meal a day, toward evening, was allowed; flesh meat and fish, and in most places even eggs and dairy products, were absolutely forbidden. Meat was not allowed even on Sundays. However, from the nineth century on the practice began to be considerably relaxed. The time for the one evening meal was anticipated so that by the 15th century it was the general custom even for religious to have this meal at noon. Once that was generally accepted, the way was opened for a collation in the evening, which by the 13th century included some light food as well as drink. The prohibition against fish was removed during the Middle Ages, while dispensation permitting the use of dairy products came to be more general.
In the course of the last few centuries the Holy See has granted other more substantial mitigations of the law of fasting. Meat was allowed at the principal meal on Sundays, then gradually on the weekdays, Friday always excepted. The trend to greater emphasis on other forms of penitential works than fasting and abstinence, particularly on exercises of piety and the works of charity, found legislative expression in the apostolic constitution Poenitemini of Pope Paul VI (Feb. 17, 1966). According to this constitution, abstinence is to be observed on Ash Wednesday and on all Fridays of the year that do not fall on holy days of obligation, and fasting as well as abstinence is to be observed on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.
Spirit. The popular idea of Lent, which prevailed until well into the 20th century was that it was a time of prolonged meditation upon the Passion, with special emphasis upon Christ's physical sufferings. This view finds little support in the texts of the Lenten liturgy, and in any case it must be abandoned in the light of Vatican Council II's insistence that the season of Lent has the twofold character: by recalling or preparing for Christian Initiation and Penance to dispose the faithful for a celebration of the Paschal Mystery. Furthermore, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy declares that it is important to impress upon the minds of the faithful not only the social consequences of sin, but also the true nature of the virtue of penance as leading to the detestation of sin as an offense against God.
Lent is unquestionably a time of penance, of asceticism, of spiritual discipline. However, making these things ends in themselves can obscure the real purpose of Lent, as is demonstrated in the sermons of the Fathers, especially St. Leo, and in the liturgy itself. The accumulated evidence of Christian tradition in this regard shows without any doubt that the real aim of Lent is, above all else, to prepare Christians for the celebration of the death and resurrection of christ. This celebration is not a matter only of commemorating the historical fact of the redemption of the human race, but even more of an anamnetical reliving the mystery of Redemption in all its fullness. Consequently, the better the preparation, the more effective the celebration will be. One can effectively relive the mystery only with purified mind and heart. The purpose of Lent is to provide that purification by weaning all of humanity from sin and selfishness through self-denial and prayer, by creating in them the desire to do God's will and to make His kingdom come by making it come first of all in their hearts.
Lent is then a collective retreat of 40 days, a time when one tries to live in the spirit of his Baptism, a time of penance in the ancient sense of repentance, metanoia, change of heart and mind, conversion.
Once Lent was established in the fourth century, it quickly became associated with Christian Intiation, since Easter was the great baptismal feast. It was the time when those catechumens who would be baptized at the Easter feast were more immediately prepared for that Sacrament. Not only those who were to be baptized, but all Christians prepared themselves for Easter. The Lenten season consequently developed into a time of spiritual renewal for the whole Church and a more profound initiation into the mystery of Christ. The whole Church renews her spiritual youth, and the necessary prelude to this rejuvenation is the awakening of the consciousness of Baptism, of realizing what it means to be baptized. This explains the prominence of the themes of Baptism, new life, and Redemption in the Lenten liturgy.
Lent is especially consecrated to the purification of the heart. This purification is accomplished first of all by sorrow for sin, compunction of heart, and penance, but also involves the positive element of growth in virtue. The Church often insists upon fasting from sin and from vice during these 40 days; in fact bodily fasting is the symbol of this true internal and spiritual fast as well as the means to attain it. True conversion, which is the aim of Lent, means forsaking sin and sinful ways. The Lenten Office reminds us of this every day: "Return to me with your whole heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning; rend your hearts and not your garments says the Lord Almighty" (Joel 2.12–13 from the "little chapter" for Terce). The bodily fasting and self-discipline in which all Christians engage during this time has for its main purpose to give them that control over themselves that they must have to purify their hearts and renew their lives. We are not only to fast from sin, but by our very fasting, pursue holiness. The Gospel pericopes of this season present the person of Christ as the model and source of all holiness. These passages focus attention upon Him and inspire the Christian to follow in His steps.
This conversion from sin and compunction of heart should take place at the very beginning of Lent and not be deferred to the end of the season. Lent is not intended to be a kind of preparation for the Easter Confession. On the contrary, the original ideal was that Confession was made before Lent began. The penance was imposed on Ash Wednesday and penitents guilty of very serious sins were excluded from the Eucharist until they were absolved on Holy Thursday. The whole Lenten season is the time for penance, which means sorrow for sin and conversion to God. A further reason for confessing grave sins before Lent begins is that the Eucharist plays an important part in bringing about that purification of heart that is the goal of the Lenten observance.
Stational Mass. Historically, the importance of Lent in the Church year was emphasized by the fact that each day in this season had its proper Mass and stational church. No other season of the year is distinguished in this manner. Furthermore, these Mass formularies (with the exception of the Thursday Masses, which were added in the eighth century) are among the most ancient in the Missal, going back at least to the time of Gregory the Great (d. 606).
The reason there is a proper Mass for each day in Lent is that the Christian community at Rome was accustomed to gather in a designated church to participate in the pope's Eucharistic celebration. This custom emphasized both the unity of the Christian community and the importance of Lent as a time of special prayer. It showed too that Lent is not an individualistic affair, but a corporate action that involves the whole community. The Church at Rome instinctively felt that the solemn corporate offering of the Holy Eucharist by the whole community gathered around its chief shepherd was the ideal way of observing Lent.
After these ferial Masses had been in large part eclipsed for many centuries, Pius X took the first step to restoring them to their original dignity by permitting the Masses of those days to be said even on feast days (below the rank of second class). In the 1955 reforms of Pius XII, all feasts under second class rank are reduced to commemorations leaving the ferial Mass and Office in possession of the day. This gave a renewed prominence to the temporal cycle over the sanctoral, reversing a tendency that began in the Middle Ages and that obscured the fact that the liturgical year is primarily the celebration of the work of Redemption.
The texts of the ferial Masses show strong influence of the themes of the Lenten season: penance, conversion, return to God, sorrow for sin, redemption, the Passion, and especially Baptism. The fact that Lent was the great baptismal retreat of the Church and the last stage of the catechumenate has greatly affected the liturgy of the season.
The last week of Lent is called holy week; the theme of the Masses during this time is the Lord's messianic mission achieved by means of His Passion. The prayers continue to refer to fasting, but most of the chants are drawn from those Psalms that allude to the voice of Christ in His Passion. The Gospels during this time present the Passion as a growing conflict between Christ and His enemies. The Office during Passiontide is remarkable chiefly for the hymns that sing the triumph of the cross: the Pange lingua of Prudentius and the Vexilla Regis of Venantius Fortunatus.
Historically, the Lenten Masses have several other features that set them apart. The most notable are the Oratio super Populum and the absence of the Alleluia in the Christian West. The first of these is simply the ancient collect of blessing that concluded every Mass. Gregory the Great dropped this from the Mass during the rest of the year, but retained it for the ferial days during Lent and made it a prayer for pentitents. In the 1969 liturgical revisions, the ancient form of collect of blessings was fully restored. In the Latin Church, the Alleluia is so intimately associated with the joy of Easter that it was natural it should be dropped out during so penitential a season as Lent. The Christian East has always kept the use of the Alleluia throughout the Sundays of Lent, on the basis that every Sunday is a celebration of the Lord's celebration, the season of Lent notwithstanding.
Bibliography: e. flicoteaux, Le Sens du carême (Paris 1956). h. franke, Lent and Easter (Westminster, Md. 1955). t. j. talley, The Origins of the Liturgical Year (Collegeville, 1991); a. j. martimort, ed. The Church at Prayer IV: The Liturgy and Time (Collegeville 1986); a. nocent, The Liturgical Year, v. 2 Lent (Collegeville 1977). a. adam, The liturgical year : its history & its meaning after the reform of the liturgy (New York 1981).
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LENT. The word "Lent" is derived from Old English lencten, meaning 'spring', the lengthening of days after winter is over. This was a period of spring fasting known in Old English as Lencten-Fasten, or in its abbreviated form, as Lencten or Lent. The ecclesiastical name for this once mandatory period of fasting is the Quadragesimal Fast, or the fast of the Forty Days, in imitation of the forty days of fasting performed by Jesus in the wilderness.
Like other institutions of Christianity, Lent took time to evolve into its full medieval form. Fasting was practiced in the early Christian Church and was viewed as an aid to prayer. Credence was given to the practice by a statement of Jesus: "When the bridegroom shall be taken from them, then shall they fast" (Matthew 9:15). What was called "half-fasting" was practiced very early on Wednesdays and particularly on Fridays to commemorate the passion or crucifixion of Christ. The Friday fast, as well as the Lenten fast, is still practiced by Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox Christians, and some Protestants.
Historically, the forty-day fast reaches back to the second century c.e., although forty days were not always required. By the fourth and fifth centuries, the fasting took place on thirty-six days representing the six weeks prior to Easter, minus six Sundays since Sundays were not fast days. Later, four extra days were added to make forty: Ash Wednesday and the three days following it.
The medieval Catholic Church in general took a middle ground on fasting. Those who put too high a value on the merit of fasting were rebuked with the words of St. Paul: "The kingdom of God is not meat and drink, but righteousness, and peace and joy in the Holy Ghost." Some extremist heretical groups, such as the Montanists in the second century, fasted frequently on bread, water, and salt.
Abstinence involves refraining from certain foods, meat in the case of Lent, and indeed, during the Middle Ages, all animal products, including butter, lard for cooking, and eggs. Many cookery books contained special recipes designed to make use of non-animal ingredients, such as olive oil, almond milk, and dried fruit. But fasting also refers to the number and fullness of the meals one partakes of on fast days. Both practices are subsumed under penance or penitence, which involves contrition and reparation for sin in human life. Since Vatican II, the rules of Lenten fasting for Roman Catholics have been modified, but earlier they were quite elaborate and even published in newspapers so that the guidelines would be clearly set forth. The following regulations were in force during the 1950s.
Everyone over the age of seven was to observe the Roman Catholic Lent with complete abstinence on all Fridays, Ash Wednesday, and Holy Saturday Morning. During these times, meat and soup, or gravy made from meat, could not be used. During days of partial abstinence, which included the Saturdays in Lent (except the last one), meat and soup, or gravy made from soup, could be taken only once a day during the main meal. For those over twenty-one and under fifty-nine, only one full meal per day was allowed during the weekdays of Lent. Other meatless meals were allowed only to maintain strength, but could not equal another full meal. Eating between meals was not permitted, except for liquids, but those people whose health or ability to work were seriously affected by fasting could be excused from the regimen. Acts of charity and of self-denial (such as abstaining from alcoholic drinks and amusements) and daily attendance at mass were encouraged.
In 1966, following Vatican II, Pope Paul VI issued his "Apostolic Constitution on Penance" (Poenitemini ), which gave present shape to the Roman Catholic Church's practice of abstinence. This papal clarification modified the elaborate rules for Lent. Still, all Roman Catholics between the ages of eighteen and fifty-nine were required to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Everyone over the age of fourteen had to abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, and all Fridays during Lent. Fasting was defined as taking only one meal per day, but with smaller meals permitted. Abstinence for Roman Catholics does not now include meat juices, broths, consommés, soups made or flavored with meat, meat-based gravies or sauces, margarine or lard. Even bacon drippings poured over salads and meat byproducts such as gelatin are now allowed. With the permission of the Episcopal Conference, many American Roman Catholics have substituted other forms of penance, such as works of charity or acts of piety, for the other meatless Fridays during the year.
By contrast, Orthodox Christians abstain from all meat products during most days of the Great Lent, and also from fish and animal products—lard, milk, butter, cheese, and eggs—together with wine and oil during Holy Week. The rigor and austerity of Orthodox fasting remains unchanged and follows the proscriptions of the early Church and its ecumenical councils. For the Orthodox, there are four main periods of fasting during the year: the Great Fast (Lent), the Fast of the Apostles (starting eight days after Pentecost), the Assumption Fast (from 1 to 14 August), and the Christmas Fast (from 15 November to 24 December). There are also a number of lesser fasts that fall outside the Lenten period.
Protestant attitudes to Lent range from complete rejection by denominations of Puritan and Pietist origin, to a rather full acceptance by Anglicans and Lutherans, who retain many practices similar to those of Catholicism. Even the Church of the Brethren, which in its sectarian, separatist beginnings opposed any celebration of the liturgical year, in the late twentieth century began, in some of its congregations, to hold special services on Ash Wednesday and the Sundays of Lent. Such services highlight repentance and prayer, but there are no special Lenten restrictions on food. There has been a movement among most of the Protestant churches to find common ground during Lent with such community-wide observances as the World Day of Prayer on the first Friday of Lent, and the One Great Hour of Sharing on the fourth Sunday of Lent with offerings dedicated to relieving world hunger.
In order to relieve the dietary austerity of Lent, and to enrich the formerly meager and restricted meals, special Lenten dishes developed in nearly all branches of Christianity. In the United States, they often appear in ethnic markets or in supermarkets catering to certain ethnic groups. One common theme is desserts, with sweet foods taking the place of meat. Recipes for Lent were once commonly published in the spring issues of women's magazines as well as in the food columns of daily newspapers. Cookbooks such as Florence S. Berger's Cooking for Christ (1949) and William I. Kaufman's The Catholic Cookbook: Traditional Feast and Fast Day Recipes (1965) generally include sections on Lenten meals and recipes that have been found acceptable under the canon law of the Roman Catholic Church.
See also Christianity; Easter; Fasting and Abstinence: Christianity; Shrove Tuesday.
Apostolic Constitution on Penance (Poenitemini ). Issued by Pope Paul VI, 17 February 1966.
"Bishop Publishes Roman Catholic Lent Regulations." Altoona Mirror (Altoona, Pa.), 18 February 1955.
The Code of Canon Law. Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1983. Book 4, Chapter 2, "Days of Penance."
Franke, Hermann. Lent and Easter: The Church's Spring. Westminster, Md.: Hermann, 1955.
Flicoteaux, Emmanuel. Le sense du carême. Paris: Cerf, 1956.
Gulevich, Tanya. Encyclopedia of Easter, Carnival, and Lent. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2002.
Jacobs, Henry Eyster, and John A. W. Haas. The Lutheran Cyclopedia. New York: Scribners, 1899. Articles on fasting, Lent, and church year.
Kaufman, William I. The Catholic Cookbook: Traditional Feast and Fast Day Recipes. New York: Citadel, 1965.
"Lent." The Brethren Encyclopedia. Vol. 2, p. 737. Philadelphia, Pa., and Oak Brook, Ill.: The Brethren Encyclopedia, 1983.
"Lent." New Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 8, pp. 634–636. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1967.
Rifkin, Ira. Religious News Service. "Catholic Bishops to Study Return to Meatless Fridays." Mobile Register (Mobile, Ala.), 11 November 1997.
Ware, Timothy. The Orthodox Church. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, U.K.: Penguin, 1963.
Lent lily the European wild daffodil, which typically has pale creamy-white outer petals.
Lent term in the UK, the university term in which Lent falls.