What is Lent?

by Luke Wayne
2/12/2018

Lent is a period of forty days of fasting leading up to Easter and is celebrated, in various forms, by Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Anglicans, Lutherans, and some other Protestant traditions. The motivations and precise practices surrounding the Lenten fast differ between many of these groups, as do the exact days counted in the "forty." Fasting, in this context, is not the prohibition of all food and water for the entire forty days, but is typically instead the foregoing of certain foods and the restriction of eating to only limited amounts and sometimes certain times of day to keep eating at a minimum. The period is often linked with the idea of penance. Most Protestant and Evangelical traditions have historically either rejected the practice of Lent entirely or, at the very least, gone out of their way to emphasize their convictions that participation in Lent is a voluntary devotional practice and that such practices are unable to increase one's standing before God, which is secured in the finished work of Christ alone.

Where Did the Idea of Lent Come From?

The origin of Lent is debated by scholars. It is nowhere established or implied in Scripture itself and, contrary to the insistence of many traditional Roman Catholics, it does not appear to have been a practice for the first several centuries of Christianity. The earliest clear references to Lent are in the fourth century AD, and even then it is not the universal practice of all churches. In a sense, we know exactly when Lent began to be promoted on a large scale. We can actually pinpoint what appears to be the exact year when Athanasius, the famous bishop of Alexandria and defender of Nicene orthodoxy, began to adopt the practice and promote it to the church at large, which also seems to be the date it first began to become a truly widespread phenomenon. As part of the resolution to an old controversy over the date of Easter, the Bishop of Alexandria was given the role of announcing by letter each year when Easter and other connected feasts would be celebrated. In Athanasius' first "festal letter," (letter announcing the feast) he wrote:

"We begin the holy fast on the fifth day of Pharmuthi (March 31), and adding to it according to the number of those six holy and great days, which are the symbol of the creation of this world, let us rest and cease (from fasting) on the tenth day of the same Pharmuthi (April 5), on the holy sabbath of the week. And when the first day of the holy week dawns and rises upon us, on the eleventh day of the same month (April 6), from which again we count all the seven weeks one by one, let us keep feast on the holy day of Pentecost," (Athanasius of Alexandria, 1st Festal Letter).

So when that letter was written in 329 AD, Athanasius announced only a one-week fast before Easter. The next year, however, we read:

"We begin the fast of forty days on the 13th of the month Phamenoth (Mar. 9). After we have given ourselves to fasting in continued succession, let us begin the holy Paschal week on the 18th of the month Pharmuthi (April 13). Then resting on the 23rd of the same month Pharmuthi (April 18), and keeping the feast afterwards on the first of the week, on the 24th (April 19), 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. Amen," (Athanasius of Alexandria, 2nd Festal Letter).

Therefore, the idea of a specific forty-day period of fasting leading up to Easter seems to have begun taking hold in the church at large in 330 AD. There does appear to be a very early tradition of fasting before the annual celebration of Jesus' resurrection, but it was a much shorter fast and varied from one church to another.

The Easter Fasts of the Earliest Churches

Our first reference to pre-Easter fasting comes to us almost by accident. It was in the midst of an early controversy over when Easter should be celebrated. Some churches believed that the day should remain tied to the Jewish Passover and fall on the same day on the Jewish lunar calendar each year while others insisted that it should always fall on a Sunday in honor of the "Lord's Day," the first day of the week. This may seem trivial from our perspective, but in fact, it was quite heated and some church leaders were prepared to completely break fellowship with one another over it. In the midst of this debate, the late second-century Christian leader Irenaeus of Lyons offered these words of moderation:

"For the controversy is not only concerning the day, but also concerning the very manner of the fast. For some think that they should fast one day, others two, yet others more; some, moreover, count their day as consisting of forty hours day and night. And this variety in its observance has not originated in our time; but long before in that of our ancestors. It is likely that they did not hold to strict accuracy, and thus formed a custom for their posterity according to their own simplicity and peculiar mode. Yet all of these lived none the less in peace, and we also live in peace with one another; and the disagreement in regard to the fast confirms the agreement in the faith," (Letter from Irenaeus to Victor of Rome).1

We see from Irenaeus that there were a variety of fasting traditions before Easter (one day, two days, 40 hours, and others) and that the churches were generally comfortable with that diversity and remained united in the faith. He argues from this that there should be the same degree of grace regarding the date of the celebration of the resurrection itself. As he wrote elsewhere:

"The apostles ordained, that 'we should not judge any one in respect to meat or drink, or in regard to a feast day, or the new moons, or the sabbaths.' Whence then these contentions? whence these schisms? We keep the feast, but in the leaven of malice and wickedness, cutting in pieces the Church of God; and we preserve what belongs to its exterior, that we may cast away these better things, faith and love. We have heard from the prophetic words that these feasts and fasts are displeasing to the Lord."2

So we see from Irenaeus that fast days before Easter existed quite early on but were fairly short periods, were not mandatory, and varied widely from place to place. That practices like this would develop is not surprising. We see similar traditions in some early churches regarding baptism, as seen, for example, in a very early document called the "Didache":

"But before the baptism let the baptizer fast, and the baptized, and whoever else can; but you shall order the baptized to fast one or two days before," (Didache, Chapter 7).

It is also possible that the idea of fasting before Easter has similar roots to the Jewish tradition of the "Fast of the Firstborn." In Judaism, there is an ancient custom where the firstborn males of a household fast the day before Passover in humble recognition that God spared their lives by the blood of the Passover lamb. Christians may have adopted a similar reasoning in that the death and resurrection of Christ was the ultimate Passover that redeemed them all from death, but this is only conjecture. At any rate, Christians did have a variety of post-biblical but still very early local traditions regarding short periods of fasting leading up to the celebration of Jesus' resurrection. These were not binding commands or necessary acts of penance, and Christians could differ on them while remaining in fellowship, but they were definitely a part of how many early Christians celebrated Easter. Still, this is a far cry from the forty-day Lenten fast.

Forty Days?

By the third century and certainly on into the fourth, there was an increasing emphasis on forty-day fast periods which we find in a variety of sources. As one scholar explains:

"In his Canonical Epistle, Peter, bishop of Alexandria in the early fourth century, legislates a fast of forty days for lapsed Christians to be readmitted from their term of excommunication (Canon 1). The same Canons of Hippolytus stipulates that catechumens who earn their living by “impure occupations”— for example, by wrestling, running, acting, hairdressing, and so on—must undergo a forty-day period of purification before they can be baptized. Another mid-fourth century collection of church legislation, the Canons of Athanasius, prescribes forty days of fasting as penance for adulteresses and executioners who wish to be readmitted to the Eucharist."3

Origen of Alexandria, a third-century Christian philosopher in Egypt, implies that there was, in his day, a regular practice of fasting forty days, though it is not clear when this was. He writes:

"We have forty days dedicated to fasting; we have the fourth and sixth day of the week on which we regularly fast," (Homilies on Leviticus)4

It is possible that Origen is referring here to an early form of the Lenten fast, but that is not altogether clear. According to some admittedly late sources, churches in Egypt once practiced a forty-day fast after an annual memorial feast day commemorating Jesus' baptism.5 Thus, just as Jesus fasted forty days in the desert after His baptism, so too would they fast forty days. Indeed, this whole business of elevating the idea of forty days of fasting seems to have arisen from the episode of Jesus' fasting in the wilderness at His temptation. One later third/early fourth-century document called the "Canons of Hippolytus" also prescribes that Christians fast on "Wednesday, Friday, and the Forty," insisting that a person who does not do so "disobeys God who fasted on our behalf."6 The same document has a different section about a time of fasting leading up to Easter, but it is only one week long.7 It seems that these sources do know of an annual forty-day fast, but it is not the pre-Easter fast.

Later, however, a fourth/fifth-century document gives a quite similar command, this time clearly regarding Lent:

"Do not lightly esteem the festivals. Despise not the period of forty days, for it comprises an imitation of the conduct of the Lord. After the week of the passion, do not neglect to fast on the fourth and sixth days, distributing at the same time of thine abundance to the poor. If any one fasts on the Lord’s Day or on the Sabbath, except on the paschal Sabbath only, he is a murderer of Christ," (Pseudo-Ignatius, Epistle to the Philippians, Chapter 13).

As one can see, Pseudo-Ignatius directly connects "the period of forty days" with the feast of the passion week, but otherwise uses quite similar language. Some Scholars believe that "the Forty" developed originally as a regional fast after Epiphany, when Christ's baptism is celebrated, and was later brought into the calendar of the larger church by merging it with the originally independent idea of pre-Easter fasting. This is, however, still only an educated guess. The precise relationship between all of these sources is difficult for the modern historian to trace out with any certainty.

What is certain is that, in the period of these sources, an attitude shift is occurring where a ceremonial fast is now seen as a mandatory practice to which Christians must submit or they are in grave sins. The tone here is a far cry from that of Irenaeus' earlier words. There is a change in the foundational thinking behind the practice that we can see in these later sources. The idea of a lengthy, annual period of fasting that every Christian is obliged before God to fulfill is a significant departure from what we find in the New Testament or even in the first and second-century churches.

It also appears to have been, in part, motivated by rivalry with the Jewish festival calendar. When Origen wrote in his "Homilies on Leviticus" about Christian celebration of "the Forty," he did so to dissuade Christians from participating in the Jewish fast on the "Day of Atonement." Likewise, Pseudo-Ignatius follows up his injunction quoted above with the warning:

"If any one celebrates the Passover along with the Jews, or receives the emblems of their feast, he is a partaker with those that killed the Lord and His apostles," (Pseudo-Ignatius, Epistle to the Philippians, Chapter 14).

Beyond this, as we have been noting, the idea of fasting for forty days is specifically modeled on the fact that Jesus fasted for forty days. The idea seems to be that it is now incumbent upon us to imitate Him in this. But the New Testament gives us a very different picture. Jesus' forty days in the wilderness are something He endured on our behalf, not something in which we are to join Him. Moses fasted forty days on Mount Sinai as Israel's intercessor. Christ did the same as the ultimate intercessor for us all, the "prophet like Moses," who is yet even greater! Thus, His forty days in the wilderness are indicative of His unique role on our behalf rather than a model for all believers after Him. Likewise, Matthew tells us that:

"Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And after He had fasted forty days and forty nights, He then became hungry," (Matthew 4:1-2).

But instructs us quickly afterward to pray:

"And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one," (Matthew 6:13).

God led Jesus into the desert to be tempted by the devil amidst this forty day fast. We are not to try and copy Jesus' season of temptation. Rather, we are told to pray that God would not lead us into temptation and would deliver us from the evil one. So, as it originally developed, this idea of a mandatory forty-day fast by which all Christians are to imitate Jesus' temptation in the wilderness was a departure from rather than a development on biblical teaching.

Lent Down Through History

How exactly Lent as we know it today arose out of all of this is still the subject of educated speculation, but by the middle of the fourth century, it was certainly a present and increasingly popular liturgical practice. As we noted previously, the first widespread announcement of a forty-day pre-Easter fast was in 330 AD, and while other forty-day fasts at different times and for different reasons are mentioned over the previous century, there is no unambiguous reference to Lent prior to that date. Some scholars actually believe Lent was invented completely that very year, but most agree that previous traditions, both of pre-Easter fasts and other forty-day fasts, contributed to Lent's development. However it came together, 330 AD is a pretty good estimation for the beginning of Lent as a widespread phenomenon. Even then, it was not immediately a universal practice (though it seems to have taken hold fairly quickly in most places). Ironically, Athanasius' own territory of Egypt seems to have shown some early resistance. Ten years after the first announcement of Lent, Athanasius wrote:

"I have further deemed it highly necessary and very urgent, to make known to your modesty—for I have written this to each one—that you should proclaim the fast of forty days to the brethren, and persuade them to fast, lest, while all the world is fasting, we who are in Egypt should be derided, as the only people who do not fast, but take our pleasure in these days."8

Athanasius was, no doubt, engaging in a bit of hyperbole to claim that the entire world had embraced Lent save Egypt alone. Still, it seems likely that by this time Lent was already indeed very widely accepted, at least in theory. In practice, it was perhaps difficult to get the average professing Christian to take on such a lengthy season of fasting every year, as is hinted in the occasionally strict tenor of warning found in the annual announcements, which began to include language like:

"he who neglects to observe the fast of forty days, as one who rashly and impurely treads on holy things, cannot celebrate the Easter festival," (Festal Letter, 347 AD).

Even here, though, we should note that one is not threatened with hellfire or even excommunication. One is simply forbidden to partake in the feast. This is a significant consequence. Easter was a big deal, the most important feast of the year for a fourth or fifth century Christian, and no one would want to be excluded. Still, at this point, though Lent was increasingly viewed as a mandatory period of fasting, its mandatory status was quite temporal in nature. In this early period, abstaining from Lent was an embarrassment and a shame on the offender, but it was not a cause for a long-term breaking of fellowship much less a threat to one's salvation.

Over the course of the middle ages, however, Lent became increasingly tied to the Medieval doctrines of "penance," or the belief that, after confession to a priest, prescribed deeds of lowliness must be fulfilled to obtain absolution from one's sins (which typically included a period of fasting, giving of alms, and prescribed prayers, often to Mary or the saints). The forty day fast of Lent came to be understood as a yearly act of penance incumbent on all baptized members of the church who were of appropriate age and health to fast. It was considered a grave sin to abstain from the fast, and threatened one's standing with the church and with God. As the idea developed and took hold that the Mass is a propitiatory sacrifice by which one remains in God's grace, the celebration of Easter also took on a more salvific role in the medieval mind. Special masses were often given special weight, and the Easter Mass in commemoration of Christ's resurrection was extremely important. As the Council of Trent would later codify:

"If any one denieth, that all and each of Christ's faithful of both sexes are bound, when they have attained to years of discretion, to communicate every year, at least at Easter, in accordance with the precept of holy Mother Church; let him be anathema," (Council of Trent, Thirteenth Session, Canon 9)9

Thus, to be excluded from that Mass, it was believed, could put one's soul in peril. This, too, added significant force to Lent as a necessary act of penance.

Indeed, the act that launched the Reformation in Switzerland, what came to be known as "the affair of the sausages," is quite illustrative of the issues here. By the 1520s, an upstart reformer named Ulrich Zwingli was already preaching against the sale of indulgences, much as Luther had been doing, and had even persuaded the government of Zurich to expel sellers of indulgences from the Canton.10 While this created some controversy, it did not yet constitute a break with Rome.

In 1522, however, Zwingli began to preach against what by then had become "the law of fasting and abstinence," and many in Zurich gathered together to eat sausages during Lent. The papacy was outraged, but Zwingli stood firm and defended his teaching. The city council of Zurich called for a public debate between Zwingli and a representative chosen by the Bishop of Constance, under whose authority Zurich fell. The council ultimately ruled in favor of Zwingli, which marked a formal break with the Bishop and with Rome.11 Simply by teaching that one was free to abstain from the fast of Lent, they were now considered to be outside the fellowship of the church and its sacramental graces.

It must be noted that Zwingli did not oppose all fasting, but rather a law of mandatory, annual fasting to which all believers were inherently obligated as a necessary act of penance. Reformed Protestants after him continued in that spirit, often practicing fasting in their own lives but denying both the need for it as a necessary act of penance and the value of scheduling large, annual, public fasts, preferring fasting to flow from personal repentance, private devotion, or specific circumstances. In times of drought, for example, a farm community might fast together to implore God's deliverance, but such a community should not schedule an annual fast before every planting season as a superstitious ritual to attempt to assure God's favor. Outside of the Jewish "Day of Atonement" in the Old Covenant system, the Scripture did not ever command nor encourage annual, liturgical fasts, as so Protestants of the Reformed tradition tended to avoid them. Lutherans and Anglicans, however, retained the tradition of Lent and other liturgical fasts while generally rejecting the Medieval theology that had developed around them.

Should Christians Celebrate Lent?

If by this question you mean, "must the Christian practice Lent," or "is it better for Christians to practice Lent," then the answer is no. The forty-day Lenten fast is not established in Scripture, nor is it the direct or necessary application of any biblical principle. As such, there is no obligation for Christians to practice Lent. Fasting during Lent has never made anyone more righteous or acceptable before God and abstaining from Lent has never made any Christian less so. Protestants who abstain from the practice of Lent need feel no pressure to participate. There is no inherent spiritual blessing in Lent that they are "missing out" on, nor is there any sin or vice in living for God biblically without the human tradition of Lent. Christians are free from any law of fasting and abstinence. We have no such command from God, and our salvation is in Christ alone and not in our own works or rituals.

If, however, one means by this question, "is it okay for Christians to practice Lent," or, "is Lent something any Christian should ever do at all" this is not quite as straightforward. Human traditions have no obligation on our conscience, but not all human traditions are inherently evil. The Bible never tells us to celebrate wedding anniversaries, but doing so can still be good as a healthy time of thanksgiving to God and one another for the beautiful reality of marriage. So the mere fact that Lent is a tradition from centuries after the time of the New Testament does not automatically make it wrong.

Still, even as a voluntary tradition, Lent does have some problems with it. It is rooted in the mistaken idea that Jesus' forty-day fast in the wilderness is something we ought to literally emulate, which misses and in some ways reverses the biblical meaning of that event. It also presents, even in the earliest sources, the idea that we must in some way become "worthy" to celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, but the entire point of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is that we are utterly unworthy and that is why Christ took our sin and punishment upon Himself! Sure, we can attach more biblical ideas to Lent today, but as far back as Athanasius' Festal letters, the argument was that we should fast forty days so as to "attain to" the feast and be worthy to celebrate it. These ideas are biblically problematic. The tradition is also difficult to separate from its long history of connection to unbiblical ideas like mandatory works of penance and the need for sacrificial Masses. It is tied closely with the false gospel of the sacramental system that the reformers turned from when they returned to the truths of Scripture and the finished work of Christ. These are not the kind of considerations a Christian should simply shrug off.

It is also true that today, as many Evangelicals sense a longing to root their faith in a deeper sense of continuity with the past, many historically ignorant Christians are often enticed by outward practices like the fasts and festivals of a liturgical calendar that give them a subjective sense of an ancient heritage and historical belonging which can overshadow the centrality of the gospel and lead them into error. The Historical faith once for all delivered to the saints is not in festivals, rituals,  or pretty buildings, but in real fellowship with the one true God in Jesus Christ. This is what binds us to true believers of all generations, not the adoption of ancient or medieval human traditions.

Finally, Jesus warns that our fasting should not be public, visible, and known to all. He says:

"Whenever you fast, do not put on a gloomy face as the hypocrites do, for they neglect their appearance so that they will be noticed by men when they are fasting. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face so that your fasting will not be noticed by men, but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you," (Matthew 6:16-18).

Fasting should be secret, hidden from public recognition, and between the worshiper and God. Lent is, at the very least, often practiced in a way that is difficult to conform to this standard.

Having said all of this, there is nothing inherently sinful in Christians choosing to fast or limit consumption for forty days leading up to Easter. There is nothing inherently sinful in dedicating those days as a special time of prayer and reflection on the gospel. Christmas is also a late, human tradition with some questionable elements to its origins and practices and with a history often tainted by similar Medieval perversions. Many of the reformers saw this and laid aside Christmas, too, and so do a minority of Protestants today. Yet most of us choose to embrace the positive core idea of setting aside a time to remember and celebrate the beautiful reality of the incarnation. It is not necessary. It doesn't aid in our salvation, make us more holy, or improve our position before God, and there is no sin in abstaining from Christmas, but ultimately it is within Christian liberty to celebrate it. The same would seem to be true of Lent. If one can practice it in such a way that avoids the theological pitfalls, keeps the finished work of Christ first, humbly avoids drawing any attention to the fasting or the person doing it, and makes no judgment on a brother or sister who worships Christ without such a tradition, then the Christian is free to have such a tradition. There is no clear biblical teaching or implied biblical principle against forty days of voluntary fasting every year as an act of free worship.

  • 1. The letter itself has not survived, but its words here are preserved by quotation in Eusebius, Church History, Book 5, Chapter 24
  • 2. Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume 1, pg. 575, fragment 38
  • 3. Nicholas Russo, "The Early History of Lent," published in Christian Reflection, (The Center for Christian Ethics at Baylor University, 2013) 23  https://www.baylor.edu/content/services/document.php/193182.pdf (accessed 2/9/2018).
  • 4. ibid, 23
  • 5. ibid, 21-23
  • 6. ibid, 23
  • 7. ibid, 23
  • 8. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf204.xxv.iii.iii.x.html
  • 9. http://www.documentacatholicaomnia.eu/03d/1545-1545,_Concilium_Tridentinum,_Canons_And_Decrees,_EN.pdf (Accessed 2/15/2018).
  • 10. Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, Volume 2, (Prince Press, 1985), p. 48.
  • 11. ibid, 49-50