A Brief History on the Celebration of the Lenten Season


March 1, 2023

“What are you giving up for Lent?” For years growing up and as a younger adult, I heard this question bandied about every year. While living in Indiana near Notre Dame, the heavily Catholic community introduced me to Fat Tuesday and the various Polish pastries associated with the day. For years, I’ve known that Lent was the 40 days before Easter and it was somehow associated with Jesus fasting in the desert. I’ve heard quite a few nonsensical stories, like the argument that Lenten fasting began as a way the church encouraged medieval peasants to save food in the lean months. Recently, I began to wonder where the practice of giving things up for the 6 weeks preceding Easter began. Here’s what I uncovered in my research.

The earliest mention of fasting before Easter is found in a history written by a man named Eusebius, who lived in the early 4th century. His history book quotes Irenaeus, a Christian leader who was born around 130 AD. Irenaeus settled a disagreement among the early churches regarding the observance of the Resurrection Day (Easter) and fasting before hand. At the time, the typical observance involved believers fasting for between 1 and 3 days. Elsewhere, Irenaeus is quoted as saying that the practice of fasting before Easter began before his lifetime, in the period of his forefathers. This suggests that some kind of fasting before Easter dated back closer to the early church.

It’s unclear what got the practice of fasting before Easter started, but there’s a case to be made that it started with candidates for baptism. Generally, they would prepare themselves spiritually for baptism through fasting and prayer. Resurrection Sunday (Easter) was a very common day for baptisms, which would mean that portions of the church would have been engaging in the practice often. The theory is that in the first century of the church’s existence, this evolved into believers taking a few days during Holy Week to fast, pray, and examine themselves in preparation for Good Friday and Easter.

The first time fasting for 40 days before Easter was mentioned in any early writings was around 325 AD. In 325, after the Roman Emperor Constantine declared Christianity a legal religion in Rome, Christian leaders from all over the world gathered at the Council of Nicaea to deal with various questions and issues. Much of their work revolved around dealing with false teachers, though they also set the church calendar and began the process of figuring out what was/wasn’t scripture. It seems as though the number 40 was chosen due to the fact that Moses, Elijah, and Jesus all fasted for 40 days at the start of their ministries. Though the 40 day figure is mentioned by Nicaea, throughout the church the number of days varied from place to place. For example, the western church only fasted for 36 days. Other early church groups ended their fast the Thursday before Easter, which was the day of the Last Supper. In the 7th century, the Latin (western) church added fasting from Ash Wednesday to the first Sunday in lent to bring the number up to 40.

The practice of giving something up for Lent was not the original practice of the church. Early on, Lenten fasting involved only eating one meal a day (dinner). In addition, meat, fish, and eggs were forbidden during that daily meal. After the 9th century, the observances began to loosen. Fasting for the evening meal was gradually loosened to 3 pm by the 15th century and later to noon. Eventually, a full fast was only required on the first and last day of Lent. Throughout the Middle Ages, the restriction on meat was loosened to allow fish and dairy consumption during the season.

The practice of “giving something up” is essentially a form of fasting. Fasting from television or meat or some other luxury is meant to be a spiritual discipline. The idea is to devote the time you would normally spend doing whatever it is you are fasting from to prayer and reflection. Generally, fasting from food would involve devoting meal times to prayer. The big idea behind the Christian historical practice of Lenten fasting is to spend that time growing closer to God, searching your heart and repenting, as well as thanking God for the gift of Jesus’ death on Good Friday and resurrection on Easter.


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