On Wednesday, a priest will dip his thumb into a dish containing the ashes from burnt palm leaves from last year’s Palm Sunday Mass, look you in the eye while tracing an ashen cross on your forehead, remind you that you will die, and call you to repent. Although it is not a holy day of obligation, Ash Wednesday is one of the most well-attended and well-known services of the year, often seeing visits from non-Catholics and even non-Christians. It commences the season of Lent, a period of preparation for Easter. When and for what reason did Catholics start observing Lent? What makes for a “holy Lent?”
A Note about the Church Calendar
Christianity is—it might seem strange to say—a Jewish religion. Jesus was a Jewish rabbi and a son of David who, as he once said, “came not to abolish the Law but to fulfill it” (Matthew 5:17). His apostles were all Jews and the earliest Christians were Jews who continued to worship in the synagogues. They taught that those who followed Christ were the true children of Abraham (Galatians 3:29).
The Bible of the early Church was the Jewish Bible, what we now call the Old Testament. Christian worship combined the two forms of Jewish worship. The first half of the Mass—the Liturgy of the Word—is roughly equivalent to the Jewish synagogue while the second half of the Mass—the Liturgy of the Eucharist—is the fulfillment of the Jewish Temple and its sacrificial system.
Another practice Christians inherited from their Jewish predecessors was a calendar of seasons and feast days. Whereas the Jewish calendar revolved around major events of the Old Testament, the Christian calendar celebrates the life of Jesus Christ. We tell time by telling the story of Jesus, giving ourselves an opportunity every year to get to know him and to experience his teachings and works. Accordingly, the two principal days of the Christian calendar are Christmas (Jesus’ birth) and Easter (Jesus’ resurrection). Before these two days are periods of preparation, Advent and Lent, respectively.
When Did the Church Start Observing Lent?
Although the earliest evidence for an Ash Wednesday service resembling what we know today dates to the seventh or eighth century, a season like what we know today as Lent seems to be one of the earliest features of the Christian calendar. St. Irenaeus (c. 130-200), the Bishop of Lyons, mentioned a dispute about the length of the pre-Easter fast in the second century. But the first reference to a fixed forty-day fast before Easter comes in the fourth century at the Council of Nicaea in 325.
It is likely that this time of fasting was a universalization of the fasts enjoined upon the “catechumens” preparing to be baptized and the “penitent” seeking reconciliation to full communion with the Church at Easter. In other words, all Christians were asked to join those entering or reentering communion in the Body of Christ in a time of fasting and penance. Surely it was a no small encouragement to new converts and remorseful sinners to see seasoned Christians marked by ashes and enduring the same fast as they. Lent, then, is a great reminder of everyone’s need for holiness, a time for all Christians to renew their commitment to Christ, to rededicate themselves to following him, and to recognize the need for Christ’s life in the wilderness of this world.
Why Forty Days?
We fast for forty days because it’s a pattern well established in Sacred Scripture. The Great Flood lasted for forty days (Genesis 7:17). When Moses received the Ten Commandments from God on Mt. Sinai, he remained on the mountain for forty days (Exodus 24:18). After the Israelites broke the first commandment by worshipping the golden calf, Moses went back up Mt. Sinai to speak with the Lord. During this time, he fasted for forty days (Exodus 34:28). Then, the Israelites wandered in the wilderness for forty years before entering the Promised Land (Joshua 5:6).
When the Prophet Elijah was on the run for scorning the Israelites for their worship of false gods, he fasted for forty days (1 Kings 19:8) until he reached Mt. Sinai. After the prophet Jonah preached to the wicked Ninevites, they fasted in sackcloth and ashes for forty days to express their remorse (Jonah 3:4-10). Finally, and most significantly, before Jesus began his ministry, he fasted for forty days in the desert (Matthew 4:2).
From these examples, it’s easy to see why Christians identified forty days as a period of preparation and penitence. Some Christians think that because salvation is by grace, we no longer have to fast and therefore this biblical pattern is irrelevant for today. Jesus doesn’t want us to do anything, they say, but simply accept what he has done for us. The Catholic Church is wrong, then, to impose upon Christians a period of fasting.
The problem with this perspective is that not only does it fail to appreciate the significance of Christ himself fasting for forty days, it also neglects the fact that Christ himself taught his disciples how to fast (Matthew 6:16-18). Moreover, we have several examples in the Acts of the Apostles of Christians fasting. After Saul of Tarsus became a Christian, for example, he fasted for three days (Acts 9:9). Luke tells us that the leaders of the Church in Antioch were fasting when they were told to choose Barnabas and Paul for ministry (Acts 13:2). Similarly, Paul and Barnabas fasted in order to discern leaders (Acts 14:23).
Nowhere do we get the impression that this biblical practice is no longer important. By giving us the season of Lent, the Church gives us the opportunity to take our place alongside Noah, Moses, the Israelites, Elijah, and especially our Lord Jesus Christ. The Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it beautifully when it says:
“By the solemn forty days of Lent the Church unites herself each year to the mystery of Jesus in the desert.”CCC 540
What Do We Do During Lent?
The most commonly talked about aspect of Lent is the fast. For those between eighteen and fifty-nine years of age, Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are days of fasting, which means one meal and, if necessary, two “snacks” that combined do not equal the full meal. Additionally, for everyone fourteen years or older, every Friday during Lent is a day of abstinence, a day when we give up meat in remembrance that on Good Friday Christ gave up his flesh for us. Although it is not obligatory, it is also customary to give up something for Lent, like chocolate, coffee, or social media. This gives the impression that Lent is primarily about cutting out things from our lives.
But fasting is only one of the three pillars of a holy Lent. The other two are prayer and almsgiving (giving to those in need). The Lenten fast is meant to facilitate the other two. In other words, we don’t simply remove something from our lives during Lent. We remove or fast from something in order to add the disciplines of prayer and almsgiving. By giving up two meals, I now have time in my day to pray or to help someone in need.
Of course, this experience of going without can open a window into the experiences of those who regularly go without the things we so easily enjoy. It therefore gives us an opportunity for greater sympathy for those in need. But going without is also meant to occasion deeper reflection on what really fills us up. We can walk through this world thinking that what gives us life is our food, our wealth, our grades, our careers, our looks, our strength, our possessions, our athletic achievements, our sexual experiences, and so on. But in fact these things often leave us feeling quite empty and frustrated. The only true source of life that fills us to satisfaction is Jesus Christ. He is the Word which uttered the world into existence. Fasting from food or some other thing that we often turn to for that little shot of life, that little jolt of pleasure, such as a like on social media or a candy bar, can give us an opportunity to redirect ourselves to the one in whom “was life, and that life was the light of all men” (John 1:4). Fasting during Lent is meant to create hunger, and that hunger is meant to be transformed into a hunger for Jesus Christ and a thirst for justice for the poor and oppressed (see Matthew 5:6).
As you are considering what you will do for Lent, don’t just think about what you will give up. Think just as deeply about what you will add. Think about how and when you might pray. Think about to whom you can give the money you saved from not eating chocolate or drinking coffee.
What Is the Purpose of Lent?
As we noted above, the earliest practice of Lent likely concerned the preparation underwent by those preparing for baptism and those preparing to be reconciled with the Church. Christ prepared for his ministry by a forty day fast in the wilderness, and so those preparing to enter or reenter the Church on Easter likewise had a forty day period of preparation and final discernment or testing.
More broadly, Lent is a time to prepare ourselves for the new life that Christ gives to us by his resurrection, which we celebrate on Easter. Sin cuts us off from God, who created the world and so is the ultimate source of life. Sin leads to death. But Christ came to free us from sin and give us eternal life.
Part of the essence of sin is substituting some earthly good or bodily pleasure for a relationship with God. For example, I might feel great anxiety about getting accepted into my top choice for college. I could turn to God in prayer, seeking his help as well as his love that will give me peace and security whatever the result. Or I could, in sin, turn to the bag of potato chips and stress eat. Sin is, in part, trying to derive from some earthly good—like chips, money, sex, fame—an assurance, peace, or love only God can provide.
Part of the reason we fast from some earthly good—in addition to preparing to celebrate the resurrection of Christ—is so we can be clearheaded about all the ways in which we regularly choose to live by bread alone. (Jesus, of course, famously rebuked the devil by saying man does not live by bread alone but by the Word of God.) It’s an opportunity to be honest about the ways we pursue earthly goods and pleasures at the expense of a relationship with their Creator. Lent gives us a season to detach ourselves from life here and now so we can become more attached to the new life God offers us in Jesus Christ.
Is Lent Dehumanizing?
Onlookers unfamiliar with Lent or only familiar with its abuses are often very skeptical. They think of Lent as the Church’s attempt to manipulate its membership into feeling bad about themselves so they will be more docile and obedient. They think Lent encourages disdain for the pleasures of life and the beauty of the material world. The film Chocolat comes to mind.
Are these fair impressions? Is Lent really so dour and sour? Was it invented by power-hungry tyrants hell-bent on oppressing people and suppressing any joy they might have in this world? We can always look at abuses of a thing and create a caricature. Being a critic is easy. But when a practice has been around for two thousand years there is good reason to ask why people find it so meaningful.
The asceticism of Lent certainly clangs against today’s indulgent individualism and consumerism. Companies are constantly awakening desires in us and encouraging us to pursue them at all costs. Increasingly, we understand our personal freedom not in terms of vocation but in terms of purchasing power. We find ourselves beholden to jobs that stress us out and do not give us identity so we can buy the pre-packaged happiness sitting on shop shelves.
In a cultural environment like ours, notions of suppressing desire and delaying gratification strike us as degrading. But here we have to face up to the serious question of whether the marketers and economists have it right. What makes us who we are? What makes us thrive? What sets us free? What cultivates our true identity? Is it our impersonal possessions? Or is it our relationships? Do we become more fully ourselves when we flit from desire to desire, upgrade to upgrade, experience to experience? Or do we blossom in relation to God and service to others? Do we find security and stability in our bank accounts or in our devotions and friendships? Do we know ourselves and do others know us in lust or in love?
The late postmodern novelist and cultural critic David Foster Wallace once urged a group of graduates to resist joining “the so-called real world of men and money and power [that] hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self.” He asked them to reject the consumeristic understanding of freedom in favour of one that “involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.”
Lent is all about learning this kind of freedom. It begins with Ash Wednesday when we face our mortality. Not so that we can despair, but so we can rediscover the real meaning, joy, and source of life. Lent calls us to give up something, not because that thing is intrinsically evil or because we shouldn’t be happy with it, but because we need to be set free to consider what is shaping us, what is giving us our identity.
A holy Lent is difficult. It is a discipline. It is a disruption. But Lent removes some trivial thing from our lives in order to create space for more valuable things. Lent detaches us from those things that do not fulfill us in order that we might attach ourselves to the God who does.
A holy Lent is about true freedom. Not the faux freedom of consumer choice, but the real, worthwhile freedom of living in accordance with truth. We are personal beings, but we often run away from the most personal things in our lives, replacing relationships with social media, experiences with possessions, love with power. Lent gives us the opportunity to reconsider and remove just one enslavement to an inhumane thing.
It gives us this opportunity so we might grow in love, love of God and love of neighbor. Lent is about discipline and self-denial, yes, but the discipline and self-denial inherent within charity. We give up something not so we can replace it with another similarly superficial thing, but with supernatural life.
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Dr. James R. A. Merrick is lecturer at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Senior Fellow at the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology, and a theology and Latin teacher at St. Joseph’s Catholic Academy in Boalsburg, Pennsylvania. Dr. Merrick is also on the faculty for the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown’s Lay Ecclesial and Diaconal Formation program. Previously he was scholar-in-residence at the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology. Before entering the Church with his wife and children, he was an Anglican priest and college theology professor in the United States and in the United Kingdom. Follow Dr. Merrick on Twitter: @JamesRAMerrick.
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