A Short History of Lent

Millions of Christians around the world will spend the next 40 days celebrating a Christian tradition which predates every denomination. The season of Lent refers to a 40 day period leading up to the celebration of Easter. The English word “Lent” is a funny one. If you lived at a time and in a place where Latin was spoken you wouldn’t call this time “Lent,” you would use the more precise word Quadragesima which is a direct translation from the Greek term for “fortieth.” When sermons in the Middle Ages started to be spoken in the language of the people, instead of the elitist Latin (thanks be to Martin Luther and others), the word “Lent” was chosen to speak of this period of 40 days. Technically the word comes from the Germanic root word Lenz which simply means long. The days get longer during the Spring, so it’s no surprise this word in German and Dutch is used for the word “Spring.” Since springtime is the time we celebrate Easter, the word “Lent” was adopted to speak of this time of new life during Spring. Who knew?

Did you know, additionally, the 40 day period of Lent may be a translation mistake? Before you call me a heretic, let me explain.

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).

Interestingly, the earliest of Christians believed Jesus was dead in the grave for 40 hours. 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.

The earliest of Christians put the 40 day fasting of Jesus in the desert together with his 40 hours in the grave. It appears Irenaeus is telling us the earliest of Christians spent 40 hours, not days but hours, fasting and praying in preparation for Easter celebrations. This is where a translation mistake changed the way we have and continue to celebrate Easter. 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.”

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.” 4th century theological powerhouse Athanasius in his “Festal Letters” pleads with his congregation to fast for 40 days leading up to a more intense fast during Holy Week. 4th and 5th century church leaders Cyril of Jerusalem, Cyril of Alexandria and Leo I all speak of a 40-day period of Lent leading up to Easter.

The exact day Lent should officially begin has been debated for many centuries. Most Western Christians start the 40 day period on Ash Wednesday. Eastern Christians start Lent on a day referred to as Clean Monday. It is usually the Monday before the Wednesday celebrated by the West. For centuries a time of feast and festival precedes the time of prayer and fasting. The most famous pre-Lent festivals are celebrated in Rio de Janeiro, Trinidad & Tobago, Venice and in modern times New Orleans. The festival on the Tuesday before Lent is known by the names: Mardis Gras, Shrove Tuesday, or Fat Tuesday. Many of the people who celebrate these festivals, however, neglect entering into the reason for the season.

Lent has historically been seen as a time of serious self-denial. In denying ourselves we are able to catch a glimpse of the cosmic self-denial made by the second person of the Trinity for the salvation of mankind. Although the 40 day period may have come about through translation problems, the 40 day period has been influential in the lives of countless saints to redirect our affections toward our Savior. Lent predates every denomination. In whatever way your local church celebrates Lent; let this season break you, wound you, destroy you, and humble you so Jesus can be the center of your life and not you.

49 Responses to “A Short History of Lent”

  1. Tim Kimberley in original post:

    Noah was in the ark for 40 days and 40 nights.

    Patently false. The rain fell upon the earth for 40 days and 40 nights (Gen. 7:12), but the Flood event lasted 371 days. Noah was ‘in’ the Ark for over a year. Check your sources and read the account in Gen 7 – 9 and note the references to dates, months, and days.

  2. Steve,

    Thanks for so vigorously keeping me honest. Of course I didn’t mean to write Noah was in the ark for 40 days and 40 nights. That sentence didn’t come out through my keyboard the way I intended. I adjusted it in the post to make sure people didn’t get distracted with the peripheral for the sake of getting the main point of the article.

    The new sentence reads: The rains fell on Noah in the ark for 40 days and 40 nights.

    take care,

  3. Btw, just to note, John Calvin did not see Lent as a “biblical” tradition, nor did Zwingli. Of course Luther was more moderate. Just a Reformational point in history. We all know the Reformation was somewhat iconoclastic. And the so-called Radical Reformation (Anabaptist), went even further!

  4. It is interesting also that Muslims have their ‘Hajj’ and Ramadam or pilgrimage and period of fasting historically these must be due to Mohammed meeting Christian and Jewish Pilgrims on their way to Africa through the lands of the Arabs..and assembling ‘Mohamadism’ out of the mish mash of facts he remembered… But I digress. Surely the ‘Puritan faiths’ would object to fasting ie lenten fasting for it isnt a sacrament (or is it?)….

  5. Thank you. I have often wondered but never take the time to find out — where Lent came from. (Not being high church.)

  6. I like this! May I use this article, with attribution, on my website?

  7. I’m having a little chronological problem. The Rufinius that translated Eusebius was Tyrannius Rufinus and was born in around 340 AD. So his translation mistake to change 40 hrs to 40 days was obviously after 340 AD. How then did the Council of Nicea in 325 AD already reference a 40 DAY period??

  8. @Dan – I knew someone would mention this, good job reading carefully. For the sake of brevity I didn’t go into this in the article but figured I’d bring it up in the comments when mentioned. Although Rufinius influenced many by his translation of Irenaeus, we know the Council of Nicea was already observing 40 days instead of hours. Did Rufinius add the dash because he knew many people had started observing 40 days of fasting? Had someone else already added the dash and Rufinius just passed along the adjustment? As far as I know, we just don’t know.

  9. @Mark – Yes, feel free to pass this along.

  10. Tim – Pray the Lord (and Steve Drake) forgive you for your blasphemous mishandling of the flood narrative… lest you be smote.

  11. So Lent is a happy and moderate hold-over practice from the Roman Catholic liturgical tradition? Did the Puritans, Scotch Presbys or the Dutch Reformed celebrate this?

  12. Too much religiosity! (That is a reaction, not a criticism). What I like about biblical Christianity is that these matters can be debated in depth and at length, (and while they still unnecessarily divide) the real essence is about what the Bible actually says about history, about Jesus, and about salvation––not details about how, when, or where to properly celebrate or perform certain religious rituals. I once heard someone say, “Keep it simple stupid.” I dare say that is often good advice (while obviously, not all things are *simple* there is no need to unnecessarily complicate matters). As Jesus asked the rich young ruler, “How readest thou” or in more modern terms, “What does it say?” If it does not say it explicitly in the Bible, then we can discuss and debate, but also agree to disagree. Too much religiosity, too many rituals, too much extra-biblical practices––TOO MUCH division. Yes, it is interesting, but lets stick to the text and try to understand what the Bible actually teaches. I think that when one can write an entire article on a religious topic, without referencing the Bible a single time, we need to be careful. Christianity is the simplest faith out there. We have one authoritative book, that manages to deal with everything that is of importance. As for the various types and forms of religiosity––perhaps Romans 14 is a good place to start?

  13. Lent is not a sacrament, at least not according to RCC.

    Dan Salter’s chronological problem seems like he caught an error in Tim Kemberley’s article.

    I am interested if there are historical sources that connect Ramadan with Lent via Christian religion, or if both Christian and Muslim fasting times connect to an older Semitic tradition, such as we might read in Jesus’ words “when you fast …” I still don’t have a conclusive answer whether this is “whenever you fast” as in “if you ever do fast”, or if it means more like “during your regular times/seasons of fasting that you celebrate traditionally.” Does Jesus use the same wording in every place this phrase is recorded? If there were such traditions, did they go for anywhere near a month?

    Scot McKnight says that the 40 days Jesus fasted in the wilderness connect with the 40 years Israel spent, with the major difference that Jesus came out alive, as the new Israel.

  14. The day before Ash Wednesday (Tuesday) is also known as “carnival”, which seems to have a dual meaning. On the one hand, it was the last day to eat meat before Lent began, and on the other hand it was the last day to “indulge the flesh” before Lent began. I don’t mind the tradition of Lent, so long as it isn’t looked at as a way to earn God’s favor, but I do mind the tradition of people wanting to go whole-hog wild in sin the day before the “holy season” begins. This has happened in western “Christian” nations, and is paralleled in Muslim cultures on the day before Ramadan. If you only plan to be “holy” for a season, and try to sin while you still can on the day before, you are really missing the point of a godly life.

  15. So….do we stop selling coffee for forty days @credo? :)

  16. Follow up to Tim at #2,
    Just a minor note: The rain fell “on the earth”. The rain fell ‘on Noah’ in the Ark by implication, so your sentence should more accurately read: ‘The rain fell on the earth 40 days and 40 nights during the Noachian Flood’. It more accurately portrays the global and universal nature of this worldwide event. This is not the whole story concerning the Flood, but fits with your 40 days, 40 nights theme.

  17. Some traditions in the Christian faith are helpful, even if they are not mandated, or Biblical.

    We are free to observe Lent, or not.

    I am one of those who believe that it is helpful to spend time (with others) contemplating why He had to come. A time for getting real about who and what we really are. Not really a time to start feeling good that we are (giving up stuff) doing things to become more spiritual.


  18. Actually…there are some things that it would do us well to give up during Lent.

    Here’s 9 of them :


  19. Fasting is of course not prohibited by our Lord Jesus as he gave instructions regarding the graceful attitude he wants during fasting. I do not advocate the rather ascetic practice known as Lent, in that we are to follow the Spirit’s leading to deny the flesh and put on Christ 365.25 modern days a year. It is not by our willpower or mere human efforts that we are made more holy – this only leads to smugness and false confidence in the flesh, paradoxically!
    Furthermore, it would be nice to tell us the meaning of the word, “Easter”, which is the name of a pagan goddess.
    Do we celebrate her, or do we celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus? Bunnies? Wicker baskets? multi-colored eggs?? Anyone who wants can look up the 40 days of weeping for Tammuz, killed by a boar – which is why it is “traditional” to eat ham on Easter . . .
    So please be aware of what you do, and why you do it.

  20. Follow up to Steve Drake at #19,

    Just a minor note: periods always go inside quotation marks.

  21. Very helpful, thanks!

    I worship in a tradition (Baptist) that does not recognize Ash Wednesday or Lent. I used to have a more hostile attitude toward it; now I see it as a helpful tradition that I wish more Christians participated in, with serious devotion.

    I was at the World Trade Center today and, during rush hour, you see many faces from many cultures. You don’t know what everyone believes, but you can assume that those with ashes on their foreheads are Christians. Now, reality is, they’re not all Christians, but wittingly or unwittingly, they’re proclaiming Christ with their ashes. As I looked at all those who did NOT have ashes on their foreheads, I realized that, at least for this day, I am identifying more with unbelievers than believers.

    May God unite his people!

  22. As a kid growing up in the Midwest I was surrounded by RCC kids although I was Congregationalist. They would tell me that they are giving up this or that for Lent. As I reflect back on that time, I’m fairly sure that none of those kids really knew why they gave up stuff for Lent. They just did as they were told. I never knew what Lent was about nor much cared. To me, and to my RCC friends back then, it was a time when they were inconvenienced by giving up something.

    I have to admit that I’m intrigued by the idea of fasting before Easter. I’m glad that as a Protestant it is something that I can choose to do and, therefore, it will have more meaning than something that is commanded by denominational doctrine.

    The history of Lent is fascinating. I wish that more folks knew what it was.

  23. GEM @ 23,
    Thank you. My intent was not to necessarily ‘quibble’ over this point concerning Noah and the Flood and take away from the thrust of Tim’s post concerning Lent, (we can do that perhaps in another post.) His correction to the original post bears out he agreed with the misconception and error of saying that Noah was ‘in’ the Ark for 40 days and 40 nights. The Flood ‘event’ lasted for more than a year, Noah clearly being ‘in’ the Ark for more than a year from the fullness and precision of the dates given in Gen. 7 & 8 as to when he entered the Ark and to when he disembarked.

  24. As a Anglican myself, and former or cradle Irish Roman Catholic, I am quite familiar with Lent. It is certainly historic and old, but I still myself see the need to Reform its use. And so I would be somewhere closer to Luther here, and of course when Calvin and Zwingli wrote against it, Lent was a very central and certainly a religious piece and very mandatory in the RCC.

    In the Western Church, and of course with the Reformation Lent has become much less penitential, fasting etc., and more a time of introspection and just checking one’s personal character and self, as in the whole light and reality of the Redemption of God In Christ. Hopefully we can see too that religious rites, without the spiritual and interior life and reality, can fast become a work and works righteousness. This is one of the lasting aspects of the Reformation. And then simply for myself, every Sunday or Lord’s Day is a little Easter! So yes, I am Low Church on Lent!

  25. Fr. Robert, do you find many parishioners really understand why they are fasting for Lent? I find some of my RC friends do, but the majority seem to do it simply because it is Lent and giving up stuff for Lent is what you are supposed to do. It is what their parents taught them and what they are teaching their children. I’m not casting negatives on the RCC or the Anglicans. I’m just saying that in my experience a lot of folks really never seemed to have learned why they fast for Lent.

  26. @Jim Zeirke: Well today, at least in the Anglican Communion, it all depends upon the parish. I have been Anglo-Catholic in my Anglican history, but even then I was no longer “Roman” Catholic. But Lent traditionally does have a rather penitential attitude, and this is not bad of itself, when true biblical repentace is properly expressed. But forgiveness is never something we earn or work for, so a biblical contrition is or needs to be seen in the gospel itself, as in the Person of Christ, we see the great grace and forgiveness of God, as Jesus is the Lamb of God Himself! HE alone gives the value of the Atonement, i.e. His Person! The great problem here is always the need to see the Love of God, itself, and not some idea of ritual, or the ritual use of religion and forgiveness. We need and can have the great or profound mystery of God in forgiveness, as we can and should see in both Word & Sacrament. But Lent must and can only be an approach to the great mercy, grace and love of God, and in that sense it can be useful. Of course, this is how I understand it, myself. And I see myself as a presbyter and pastor that is both “catholic” and “reformed”. To my mind, this is true Anglicanism! And since I am no longer Roman Catholic, I really cannot speak for them, but I think the essence again of Lent, is and has been much too penitenial, and even torturing to the conscience, rather than the forgiveness of God itself! But again, just my own personal thoughts.

  27. *repentance…sorry for the poor type!

  28. Hi,

    I grew up in a predominantly Roman catholic country and was born into that tradition myself. I received certain sacrements such as infant baptism and first holy communion and then confirmation which was allegedly the baptism of the holy spirit with the laying on of hands by a bishop. Then at age 28 I was saved and became a believer in Jesus. Instantly I saw the truth of the religion I was brought up in. Our family and most of our country recognised lent as a time you give up something for 40 days which for the majority of children was sweets and for adults it was smoking. So to me Lent is notthing more than a religious tradition which as a Christian I feel no compulsion to observe whatsoever and indeed actively speak against in the believing church. I find that it is at best people having a stab at being more holy for a season and at worst a mockery of what Jesus did in the desert in the sense of people being taught that they can increase their righteousness before God with a token sacrifice. Such deeds before God are what I believe the scripture terms “filthy rags”. I believe with all my heart that it is sinful of the believing church to give any credence whatsoever to this man made tradition. I would ask that how many people do you think who observe lent actually fast for forty days as Jesus did. And what is the defining characteristic of Jesus fast? he was led by the spirit and not by tradition. fasting is between you and God and does not have a designated…

  29. Some great comments and debates. I am not in a thinking frame of mind but I am sure that upon searching there would be a link between ‘lent’ and the early ‘going astray’ of the Church that became the RCC. This would give some weight to Marx’s theory that religion is a form of control/corruption although we know now that most church groups or religions have controls against corruption and false teaching- but it has not always been so. Furthermore it has been shown that Marx saw ‘Marxism’ as a continuation or fulfillment of Christianity- which is not as fargetched as it may seem- although it is unbiblical and unChristian…

  30. Seems to me that many look at what others do, perhaps out of ignorance, and then base their judgments on their impressions of other peoples actions. As an Eastern Orthodox I think that is a disingenuous approach. Lent is not irrelevant because people misunderstand it. We are fasting to prepare ourselves for the Passover Feast. Admittedly the 40 day fast is somewhat late, if you consider the 4th century late, but it is not out of context. The Church from the beginning fasted during this season in expectation and preparation. Maranatha

  31. I am not observing Lent, at this time, but am fascinated by the concept. In fact, I just learned of Lent a few years ago. I grew up in a Charismatic / Pentecostal / Assembly of God household and attended a Baptist school for junior and senior high. A few years ago, I started questioning what I believed and why. The quest has taken me on such a journey and I’m learning so much from so many other traditions. It would be nice if protestants had more knowledge on early church history and traditions.

  32. @Ananya: When I say I am a “churchman” I am not taking some place of authority for myself, but that place of the historical church, itself. As an Anglican, we/I am both “catholic” and “reformed”, and myself certainly “Protestant”! Note here too classic Lutherans and some Presbyterians. So there are some “Protestants” that seek church history and tradition. You might want to check out the Reformed Church history here also. See the Anglican Thirty-Nine Articles (which is inside of every copy the Anglican Book of Common Prayer – BCP). :)

  33. Fr. Robert … I hope I didn’t lead you astray with my wording. When I speak of wishing other protestants would seek tradition and history, I’m referring broadly to my background and the types of churches I attended (Baptist, Non-Demoninational, Pentecostal, Assembly of God, etc). I’m kind of stunned that I only learned of Lent and other rich church traditions recently and I’m in my mid 40’s … I feel like I have so much to learn :-)

    Thank you for your reply … I enjoy reading your posts!

  34. @Ananya: Thanks! I am myself getting older (62, 3 late – oh yes later, please, this year lol, I hope a young 62?). But I am always the perpetual student!

  35. This I love:

    “Lent predates every denomination. In whatever way your local church celebrates Lent; let this season break you, wound you, destroy you, and humble you so Jesus can be the center of your life and not you.”

    (It’s Easter season now, but it will keep for next year, by the grace of God!)

  36. Did you know, additionally, the 40 day period of Lent may be a translation mistake? Before you call me a heretic, let me explain.
    it would be hard to call you a hereitic for questioning a man made tradition


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