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The Season of Lent in the Church

Mar 30, 2011, 1:34 PM | Article By: FR. EDU GOMEZ - Parish of the Resurrection, Brikama, General Secretary Gambia Christian Council

Introduction: We began the season of Lent from Ash Wednesday and until now we are in the third week. Lent we have learnt according to the teachings of the Church is a forty days period set aside before Easter. I will in the next three weeks in the series of the Christian Panorama write on the history of lent and on the three basic virtues of prayer,, fasting and almsgiving. These three basic virtues are important because for the Christian believer, they are to be lived and practiced.

LENT IN CHURCH HISTORY: The word Lent comes from the Anglo-Saxon word Lencten which means spring. In the lands where the Church began to spread in the early centuries, there were four natural seasons of the year as distinct from the tropics where there are two seasons. Apart from this original meaning of the word, Lent is a period of prayer, fasting, almsgiving and penance in preparation for the great feast of Easter, the feast of the Resurrection.

As it is, Lent is not a season important in itself but it is a season of preparation for Easter. Therefore, without Easter, there would be no lent nor would there be the need of Lent. “Easter gives meaning to lent and shows us what it really is the great Paschal Feast of he Church.” (The Catholic Encyclopaedia page 634).

In the early history of the Church i.e. about the third century after the resurrection of Christ, Lent did not exist as we have it today. What existed was a period of one or two days of fasting before Easter Sunday. In Rome an old tradition prescribes a two-day fast only. The first indication of a forty-day period occurred in the law of the Council of Nicea. This Council met in AD 325. A definite forty-day period came to be known from AD 360 onwards as the Council of Laodicea expressly commanded its observance. The Lenten period of forty days preparation for Easter finally and formally came to be recognised by the end of the fourth century and was observed by the whole Church in the east and west.

In the Church, the number forty used came from the forty days fast of Jesus in the desert (Matt. 4:1-11, LK. 4:1-13). Originally then the idea was a preparation for baptism as Easter time was the ideal time to receive the sacrament of baptism. Baptism as a Sacrament meant a dying to sin and rising to new life in the risen Lord Jesus. Fasting was not originally recognised as being of great importance but gradually it became more and more important. In the Easter Church, the forty days period was spread over seven weeks with Saturday and Sunday free from the days of fasting. In the Church in the West, there was a six-week period with Sundays only exempted from fasting. This meant that there were only thirty six days of fasting in the Church in the West. Additional four days were added to the thirty six days which were derived from Ash Wednesday and the three days from were Lent began.

During the early centuries beginning from the fifth was very important and so very strict. For example, meat was not allowed even on Sundays and only one meal was allowed during the fast and to be eaten in the evening. In addition to meat and fish being forbidden, eggs and diary products were also in most places absolutely forbidden. This lasted until the ninth century when things began to change. The Church’s prohibition against fish was removed in the middle ages while a dispensation to eat diary products became more general. Over the last few centuries, the Church granted more substantial dispensations from the once rigorous fast. Meat was first allowed on Sundays and now it is allowed on week days except Fridays.