Liturgical Beginnings: Origins of Lent

Today’s Lenten obligations make the season a gentle one. Fasting is required only twice, on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, although also encouraged each Friday of the season. Abstinence is required on Ash Wednesday and all Fridays. Some Catholics opt to abstain on a second day – usually Wednesday – each week as well. We might say some extra prayers, work harder on strengthening a certain virtue or overcoming a vice, and/or offer up something we usually enjoy. Other than that, our days pass by pretty normally, and before we know it, Easter – a big celebration – is here.

Why, then, is Lent called “the Great Fast,” or a season of prayer and fasting? The word “Lent” comes from an Old English word, Lencten that simply means spring. In modern English, however, the term has come to be used in place of the Latin word quadragesima, a literal translation of the Greek word for the season – tessarakoste, which means “forty days.” The Greek term was constructed in imitation of the Greek word pentekoste, which means “fifty days.”

This term started being used in the fourth century. Christians had observed some form of fasting and prayer prior to Easter since apostolic times, but the nature and duration of the preparation differed among the Christian communities. St. Athanasius helped universalize the tradition of a forty day season of preparation in the 300s. This duration had biblical significance, as Moses, Elijah and Jesus had all fasted for a period of forty days.

From the fourth century until recent times, local traditions continued to vary slightly, but all observed a rigorous discipline, abstaining from various foods for the entire season. Some abstained from all meat and fish; others from meat or fruit and eggs, and still others from all foods aside from dry bread. Abstaining from dairy products as well became a common practice after the seventh century. In terms of fasting, the initial practice entailed a complete fast from all food and liquid until sundown, when one meal was permitted. People practiced this fast every day of the season, including Sundays, and some Christians exercised an even more rigorous fast, allowing themselves only one or two meals per week.

In the Middle Ages, some of these obligations were lightened. Abstaining from dairy and eggs was gradually set aside. Instead of waiting until evening, Christians were started being allowed to break their daily fast at none. None literally means the ninth hour, or 3:00. However, it was commonly used not to signify the precise time of 3:00, but to refer to a period of time during which the Office of None (vespers) would be said, beginning at 1:00 and ending at 3:00. Over time, none came to mean from 12:00-3:00, and gradually became a term we are all familiar with: “noon.” Today, although it is not required, many Christians in the Eastern Catholic rites continue to practice this tradition, by fasting from all forms of food and drink until noon each day of Lent.

During the time of St. Thomas Aquinas, the Church began allowing collation, or the practice of consuming a portion of solid food – not to exceed 8 oz – and drink in the evening, in addition to the midday meal. Abstinence from meat every day was still customary.

The final changes, such as fasting only being required on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, a light snack being allowed in the morning as well, and abstinence only on Fridays took place during the last few centuries, thus completing the gradual transformation of the rigorous “Great Fast” into the season we know today.

Wishing everyone a blessed Lent!

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