The practice of observing Lent dates back to the early fourth century, where the term tessarakoste (“forty days,” similar to pentekoste, “fifty days,” or Pentecost) is first mentioned in the fifth canon of the Council of Nicea (A.D. 325). The term “lent” is an English word introduced during the Middle Ages to denote the forty days leading up to Easter. “Lent” originally meant “spring” (as in the German lenz and the Dutch lente), a period when the hours of daylight begin to lengthen.
Forty is a symbolic number of completion in the Bible: the flood lasts forty days and forty nights; Moses stays with God on Mt. Sinai for forty days and forty nights; the Israelite spies spend forty days exploring the Promised Land; the Israelites themselves spend forty years in the wilderness after the Exodus; Elijah spends forty days and forty nights traveling to Mt. Horeb; both David and Solomon reign for forty years, and so on. The forty-day period of Lent reflects the forty days that Jesus spent in the wilderness being tempted, prior to beginning his public ministry and the traditional forty hours he spent in the tomb, from 3:00 pm on Good Friday until 7:00 am on Easter morning.
In the Western Church Lent begins on Ash Wednesday and ends on Holy Saturday, a total of forty-six days. The six Sundays of Lent are not counted among the forty days, for each Sunday in considered a “mini-Easter,” celebrating Jesus’ resurrection. That leaves exactly forty days of fasting during the Lenten season.
In the Bible, God only commands his people to fast one time each year, on the Day of Atonement, or Yom Kippur (Leviticus 16); it is a complete twenty-four hour fast: no food, no water. Fasting later becomes one the three devotional pillars of Judaism: prayer, almsgiving and fasting. Jesus speaks of these practices in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6: 1-18).
Fasting continues as a devotional practice in the early church, especially during periods of preparation for rites such as baptism and receiving the Eucharist, or Holy Communion.
The three devotional pillars of Judaism—prayer, almsgiving and fasting—became dominant themes in the observance of Lent in the early church: prayer (discipline that focuses on God); almsgiving (discipline that focuses on others); and fasting (discipline that focuses on one’s self). All three serve as means to move into a closer and more intimate relationship with God.
The practice of observing Lent was universal in Christendom until the Reformation. Today the Roman Catholic Church, along with most Lutheran, Methodist, Anglican and Episcopalian churches continue to observe Lent with varying degrees of devotion, but many Protestant churches still do not.
For those who do observe Lent, it is not an oppressive time of prayer and penance, nor a time of silly abstinence (“giving up” desserts for Lent), but a time set aside to reflect on who Christ is, on what he has done for us, on preparing for the joy of his resurrection and on living a life “worthy of the calling” we have received (Ephesians 4: 1).