What is 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.

8 Responses to “What is Lent?”

  1. Michael or Tim, do you have an articles on why it is called Easter? Thanks.

  2. Nice one, Tim.

    Good info. …and good advice.

    Here’s something really good on which things we ought ‘give up’ for Lent:

  3. Careful, theoldadam – we should give up those every day, right? Unless you’re suggesting that we take them up again when Lent is over, that’s not what fasting is about.

    More here:

  4. I highly doubt it is a translation mistake into Latin that caused it since the Greek church essentially has 40 days fasting too, and they would hardly be fooled by that. (I realise the Greek church practice is a bit different in length and calculation, but its still basically calculated around 40 days).

  5. Pavel Mosko (Addai) February 18, 2013 at 6:43 pm

    I don’t buy the mistranslation argument at all. The 40 days is purely a typology thing that points back to the 40 days in the OT etc.

    The only thing I’ve ever read or heard that’s close to what your talking about is the evolution of the Church year. (The very primitive church calendar had a short fast, of only 3 days or so that was suppose to prepare you for Easter. And that was later lengthened to make a season of fasting that would fit the OT pattern and typologies).


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