Lent explained: Forty days of fasting, prayer and penitence

Religious education students from Our Lady of the Rosary Parish pose for a photograph after Ash Wednesday Mass last year in Lost Nation. In this week’s Lenten feature, Deacon Frank Agnoli, diocesan director of liturgy, answers questions about Lent.

(Editor’s note: This is the first in a Lenten series. Deacon Frank Agnoli, director of liturgy, answers some of the most frequently asked questions about Lent.)

Where does the word “Lent” come from?

The word itself comes from the Old English word for springtime.

When was Lent first observed?


There were a number of observances in the early church that, over time, became combined to give us Lent as we know it today. In some places, there was a short fast before Easter. For example, in North Africa, the Friday and Saturday before Easter were fast days while in Alexandria (Egypt) and Syria, there was a 6 day fast (what came to be Holy Week). In other places, there was a period of preparation before baptism — but the day for baptisms varied. In Rome and North Africa, there was a three-week period of fasting before baptisms on Easter. In other places, where baptism was not celebrated on Easter, this three-week period took place at other times of the year. In Alexandria, there was a 40-day period beginning on Epiphany that led to baptism; again, not on Easter. The first church document to mention Lent is from the Council of Nicaea (AD 325).

Over time, it became more and more common to celebrate baptism on Easter, and to extend the period of preparation and fasting to 40 days — connecting the fasting to the story of Jesus’ temptation in the desert. However, different places counted the 40 days of fasting differently. In Rome, which is the tradition that we’ve inherited, the way that the time before Easter has been counted, which days were considered days for fasting and which were not, and which days were considered Lent and which the Triduum, has varied a lot over time. But we can say that Lent in this sense (called “Quadragesima” or “the fortieth”) was part of the Roman calendar by the mid-4th century.

How is the “start date” of Lent chosen, and why doesn’t it start on the same day each year?

The start of Lent is based on when Easter Sunday falls, which changes year to year. For Roman Catholics and others using the Gregorian calendar (Christians in the West), Easter falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon on or after March 21 (which is close to but not always the spring equinox). Thus, for us, Easter will always fall between March 22 and April 25. Then, we calculate backwards to find the date for Ash Wednesday. For those using the Julian calendar (Christians in the East), Easter will usually fall on a different date.

Why do we receive ashes on Ash Wednesday?

The imposition of ashes on all the faithful (and not just those doing public penance) was a relatively late practice to develop, and Rome was especially slow to adopt it. The practice comes from the Roman text used in the Middle Ages as a processional antiphon on that day: “Let us change our garments for sackcloth and ashes” — the traditional marks of penitence (the source of the text is unclear; it may be based on Jonah 3:6). Originally, in Rome, the reference to ashes was understood figuratively. But, as Roman liturgical books made their way into what today is France and Germany, Christians there took the verse quite literally. So, by 950 we see the imposition of ashes for everyone mentioned in the liturgical books of that area. In turn, those books eventually made their way back to Rome. The general imposition of ashes wasn’t practiced in Italy until the 11th century; the name “Ash Wednesday” was first used in the 16th century.

Why is Lent 40 days and why is Sunday not included?

We need to look at Lent and the Triduum together. How the Church has defined these seasons has varied greatly across the centuries. When the calendar was last revised, after Vatican II, the Easter Triduum was defined as extending from the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday through Evening Prayer on Easter Sunday. These Three Days are counted as three 24-hour periods, or as days in Jewish reckoning: from sundown to sundown. The Triduum is a unit, a single celebration of Christ’s death and resurrection. It is not part of Lent, which extends from Ash Wednesday until the evening of Holy Thursday.

As the calendar was being revised, the question was asked: when should Lent start? Some argued that the season should begin on the First Sunday of Lent, the earlier tradition. Others, holding that Ash Wednesday was very popular among the faithful, wanted to start the season on that day, even though that was a later tradition. The second group won out, and, as a result, Lent is really 44 days long! Since we don’t fast on Sundays, that gives us 38 days for the Lenten Fast.

Where does 40 come from? We add in the Paschal Fast: the two more days of fasting that we do from Holy Thursday evening to the Easter Vigil. So, once again, as in the early church, “Lent” and “Fast” are not synonymous. Between Lent and the Triduum, we have Forty Days of Fasting (not 40 Days of Lent); which we then follow with Fifty Days of Feasting!

We’ll go deeper into what fasting means in in the coming weeks.


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