So who invented Lent anyway? It’s been around for as long as I can remember.
Our Lenten observance is based on tradition, and certainly our church is traditional. So where did this tradition originate? Looking to the Scriptures, we find numerous examples of a penitential time lasting 40 days and 40 nights.
In Genesis, the Lord cleansed the world of its sins by sending the great flood, with rains lasting 40 days and 40 nights, saving only Noah and his family.
In Exodus, the Lord saved His people Israel by rescuing them from slavery from the Egyptians and sending them into the desert. Near the beginning of their journey he called Moses to Mount Sinai. On the mountaintop the Lord provided Moses with detailed instructions on the construction of His sanctuary, and the method of worship. The detail was such that it took seven Chapters of Exodus to record. As we know, Moses spent 40 days and 40 nights on the mountaintop receiving these instructions, but the people Israel got tired of waiting, so they constructed a golden calf to worship. When Moses found out, he was pissed. So much so that he smashed the stone tablets containing the laws that he received from the Lord on the ground. Seeing what happened, The Lord again called Moses to the top of Mount Sinai, where, as we learn in Exodus:
“And he was there with the LORD forty days and forty nights; he neither ate bread nor drank water. And he wrote upon the tables the words of the covenant, the ten commandments.” [Exodus 34:28] And we know that Israel then wandered about the desert for 40 years.
In the Book of Kings, the prophet Elijah was visited by an angel, “And he arose, and ate and drank, and went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God.” [1 Kings 19:8]
And of course in the New Testament, Matthew relates that after His baptism in the Jordan, at the beginning of his public ministry, Jesus went into the desert, “And he fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterward he was hungry.” [Matthew 4:2] Matthew certainly had a knack for understatement.
While some of the earliest references to forty days of fasting before Easter date back to the time of Sts. Leo and Jerome in the fifth century, we are certain it was recognized at the end of the sixth century, and was quite strict at that, since we find Pope St. Gregory writing to St. Augustine of England advising him, “We abstain from flesh meat, and from all things that come from flesh, as milk, cheese, and eggs.” As time went on, the rules loosened up a bit.
Historically, Lent has varied from a week to three weeks to the present configuration of 46 days. The forty-day fast, however, has been more stable. The Sundays of Lent are certainly part of the Time of Lent, but they are not prescribed days of fast and abstinence.
Our requirements are handed down in the 1983 Code of Canon Law, which specifies the obligations of Latin Rite Catholics, since the Eastern Rite Catholics have their own penitential practices as specified by the Code of Canons for the Eastern Churches.
- Canon Law proscribes that all Fridays through the year and the time of Lent are penitential days throughout the entire Church. [Canon 1250:]
- Of course, we have to fast and abstain on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, but Canon Law still provides that we must also abstain from eating meat on Fridays throughout the year unless they are solemnities, as proscribed by the conference of bishops. [Canon 1251:] Here in the United States the American Bishops have allowed us to choose a different form of penance rather than abstaining from meat on every Friday, but there must be some form of penance. The bishops stress that “[a]mong the works of voluntary self-denial and personal penance…we give first place to abstinence from flesh meat.” [Pastoral Statement on Fasting and Abstinence].
- Everyone above the age of 14 is bound by the law of abstinence; fasting is required up to the age of 60. [Canon 1252]
- Finally, it leaves it up to the bishops to determine more precisely the observance of fast and abstinence and to substitute in whole or in part for fast and abstinence other forms of penance, especially works of charity and exercises of piety. [Canon 1253:] Since St. Patrick’s Day normally falls during Lent, those of us who are Irish, or who celebrate as if they were, are grateful for a dispensation when his feast day falls on a Friday, so we can enjoy our corned beef and cabbage.