September 21, 1999

Questions About Lent

What is the deal with Lent? When did it start?

Early on, Lent was a time of preparation for those about to be baptized at Easter. The whole Church was invited to prepare with them for the greatest of all feasts, and this preparation included acts of mortification, such as fasting, a very old way of reaching out to God. Later, those who had sinned seriously and were doing public penance would observe Lent in this way and be reconciled on Holy Thursday (rejoining the table at Mass). Lent has been observed in different ways at different times, so it is hard to say when it started. St. Cyril of Jerusalem seems to point to some kind of Lenten observance in some of his homilies to catechumen (those preparing for baptism) around 360 or so, but doesn’t address it directly. Quasten’s Patrology says there was a tradition in his time of the bishops of major cities writing to the smaller ones about Lent. St. Athanasius writes (in 332): “The beginning of the fast of forty days is on the fifth of Phamenoth [March 1]; and when, as I have said, we have first been purified and prepared by these days, we begin the holy week of the great Easter on the tenth of Pharmuthi [April 1]…” He goes on to set the date of Easter for that year at April 11. This was apparently a custom of long standing, so we would have to put the observance as starting before this. The earliest reference I can find is in writings of Dionysius, bishop of Alexandria from 248 – 265. His letter to Basilides answers the latter’s questions about the duration of Lent. It used to be available on the web, but it is gone now. You should be able to find it in the library, but let me know if you don’t. By the way, there is more than one Basilides, so make sure it is the letter of Dionysius to Basilides. Other ancient writers on Lent are: St. Basil the Great (d. 379), St. John Chrysostom (d. 407), Severian of Gabala (d. 408).

Where is this Lent in the Bible?

It’s not there. The practice didn’t start until a few centuries later. Fasting and abstinence are very old spiritual disciplines, but they aren’t really doctrines (teachings). We use them because they seem to help. Of course, the prophets said that they are only useful after everything else is in its proper place: sacrifice without obedience is useless. So, it’s a practice in some religions, including many Christian denominations, but it isn’t the same as the Ten Commandments or the Beatitudes. Theoretically, it could be dropped at any time. I should mention that abstaining from meat on Fridays is just one form of penance. For American Catholics, we only abstain from meat on Fridays in Lent (and Ash Wednesday), but we are all supposed to remember the sacrifice of Jesus in a special way on the other Fridays, too, in whatever way is most meaningful to us (helps us pray, etc…).

What do Catholics abstain from? What scriptures support this?

This has changed over the centuries: in the past, people abstained from foods prepared with fat, or they fasted in a more strict way throughout Lent. Some people still observe Lent in this way. Meat is (or at least was) the food of the wealthy, and to give it up was to eat the food of the poor, and so to remember one’s poverty before God. It is a devotional practice of ancient (Jewish) origin, and not really based in Scripture, except for the ideas in Isaiah 22:13, Daniel 10, etc… Abstaining from meat was a sign of penance or sorrow for sin, but eating it a sign of merriment. The current practices regarding meat in Lent (or any time of year) could change (and they have), because they are not a part of Christian doctrine, but only practices that help us in our faith.

Why abstain from meat?

I’ve heard two things that sound right, I’ll put the stronger one first: 1) Abstaining from meat is a way of practicing self denial and taking on a kind of voluntary, temporary poverty as a kind of “gift” to God. The idea of penance, which is the larger idea here, is thousands of years old, reaching back to the early Hebrews, at least. Some people wore sackcloth and ashes, others fasted and wept. It is a way of stripping away the tokens of wealth and power for a short time so we can remember who we are. We do this on the day Jesus allowed everything to be taken from him so we could see who he is and be saved. As part of this, meat (except fish) tended to be the food of the wealthy, and still does. Red meat especially isn’t practical for the poor, because of the expense, space, equipment (freezers, for example), and such. In wealthy countries, the “poor” can still afford it in some form, but poor people in other countries (without electricity and refrigerators) might never eat red meat at all. 2) The idea is we avoid bloody (red meat) food out of respect for the Crucifixion, because Jesus gave his blood for us. Fish are okay, because they are “bloodless.” (To the ancients, fish didn’t appear to have much blood.)

Where can I find out more about Lent?

Here are some links that might be helpful:
United States Conference of Catholic Bishops – Lenten Resources
(Each of these has multiple links for further searching)

Hello. I’m doing a report for conformation and I need to know what colors are represented with Lent. If you could get back to me I would greatly appreciate it. My e-mail address is Thank-you.

Purple is the color, in this case representing penance and contrition, rather than royalty. I don’t know of any other colors associated with Lent.

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