The Meaning of Lent
Lent – A Penitential Season
Lent is the 40 day season prior to Easter. It is a penitential time of prayer and fasting. The season begins Ash Wednesday and concludes at the end of Holy Saturday, with the Easter Vigil. In the Roman Catholic Church, the 40 days of this season do not include the six Sundays of Lent. Sundays throughout the year are considered “mini-Easters” – they always celebrate the joy of the Resurrection of Christ.
The word “Lent” itself comes from lencten, simply referring to the Spring season. However, since the Anglo-Saxon period (9th century) it has been a popular term for this penitential season. The Latin name for the season, quadragesima, is more significant, as it means “forty days” or “fortieth day.”
A Brief History of Lent
In the first three centuries of Christianity, preparation for the Easter feast usually covered a period of one or two days, perhaps a week at the most. Saint Irenaeus of Lyons (ca AD 140-202) even speaks of a forty-hour preparation for Easter. As of the 5th century, some Church Fathers, such as St. Leo, believed the 40 day fast to be an Apostolic tradition. However, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia, most modern scholars reject this view. History shows a variety in both the duration and fasting guidelines in the first three centuries.
The first official reference to Lent as a period of forty days’ preparation occurs in the teachings of the First Council of Nicaea in AD 325, which uses the term tessarakoste, meaning “fortieth” in Greek. By the end of the fourth century, a Lenten period of forty days was established and accepted.
Lent and Baptism
In its early development Lent quickly became associated with the sacrament of baptism, since Easter was the great baptismal feast. Those who were preparing to be baptized participated in the season of Lent in preparation for the reception of the sacrament of baptism. Eventually, those who were already baptized considered it important to join these candidates preparing for baptism in their preparation for Easter. The customs and practices of Lent, as we know them today, soon took hold.