Ss. Cosmas & Damian Roman Catholic Church

The History of Lent

Lent probably originated with the pre-Easter baptismal rituals of catechumens and the number of days set aside for fasting varied according to region. The number forty, hallowed by the fasts of Moses, Elijah, and especially Jesus, probably influenced the later fixed time of 40 days. The Canons of Nicaea (AD 325) were the first to mention 40 days of fasting. Initially Lent began on a Monday, and this is when the Eastern Churches begin Lent to this day. Eventually the West began Lent on Ash Wednesday, and the observance lasted for 40 days. The East has no equivalent to Ash Wednesday.

The earliest fasts of Lent tended to be very strict, allowing one meal a day, and even then meats, eggs, and other indulgences were forbidden. The Eastern Churches follow this today. Now, in the Western Church, only Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are enjoined as strict fast days, but Fridays are set aside for abstinence from meat. Sundays are not a part of the Lenten fast, because Sunday is always a feast of the resurrection. However, the Sundays of Lent are still a part of the Lenten liturgical season in the Western Church, and the worship services tend to be more simple and austere than normal. They lack the Gloria, and the joyous “alleluias” of the Easter season.

The Western liturgical color of Lent is violet, symbolizing royalty and penitence. Like Sundays, other major solemnities, such as St. Joseph and the Annunciation, take precedence over Lenten observances in the Church calendar. These days provide a break from the Lenten fast. However, at least in the current Western Church, Lent nearly always trumps the observances of minor feast days. Too many festivals take away from the simple and penitential spirit of the Lenten season. Certain devotions and liturgies have developed during the Lenten season, including (in the West), the Stations of the Cross.