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Q. What is the origin of the word “Lent?” When did Lent become part of pre-Easter observances?
A: “Lent,” I understand, is a form of the word Lengten-tide, a reference to the season of longer sunlight and warmth than winter. Lengten is an Anglo-Saxon term, however. The Biblical word is Quadragesima, signifying “fortieth”; the reference is to the number of days assigned by the Liturgy to the season’s observance. In German, fasting is accented by the word Fastenzeit (“Fasting time”); in Hungarian, Lent is called the “Great Fast.”
Lent as a special observance is quite ancient. According to Father Francis X. Weiser, in his Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs, Lent is specifically noted formally as early as the fourth century, in the First Council of Nicaea. By the sixth century, Quadragesima was already a familiar descriptive for the seasonal fast and abstinence prior to Easter. Father Weiser observes that the Lenten Fast around the year 600 was calculated four days earlier by Pope St. Gregory for the purpose of citing precisely 40 days. (Ibid.)
Incidentally, the first day of Lent is called “Ash Wednesday” in the Western world Christian countries because ashes are blessed and imposed on the foreheads of the faithful on that day. The use of ashes, derived from the burning of palm branches blessed on the previous Passion (Palm) Sunday, is intended as a living sign of human frailty, sin, repentance and reconciliation. The fast itself reminds us of Jesus’ fast in the desert, recorded in Sacred Scripture. (See Luke 4, 2) Interestingly, the Lenten fast for a thousand years was accompanied by abstinence not only from meat, but also from dairy products such as eggs, cheese, milk and butter.
(To be accurate, the Lenten Fast includes the amount of food taken; in addition, abstinence from meat and, in the past, the other foods related to flesh meat, was required. Also, for the sake of historical accuracy, the Lenten Fast as stipulated in Rome was mitigated for practical purposes in various ways within northern Europe; e.g., Britain, Scandinavia. Canonical modifications for the Lenten Fast eventually appeared in the 1918 Code of Canon Law; further easings occurred with the current Code of Canon Law.)
Following the Protestant Reformation, the imposition of blessed ashes was generally forgotten, outside of Catholicism, except for unusual circumstances. Vestiges did occur, however.
Special Lenten devotions are universally kept; for example, making the Stations of the Cross. “Stations” here means “stops” symbolized by crosses (usually 14), each commemorating scenes from Jesus’ arrest and agony to his crucifixion. Each station recalls an episode relating to Christ’s Passion and death; e.g., the agony in the Garden, or Jesus is nailed to the cross. “Loving thought” or meditation on Christ’s Passion and death is required when proceeding from Station to Station, or when virtually following a leader processing from Station to Station.