Author: Neil Rees, 24 February 2022
Lent is a traditional period in the Church calendar which marks the advent of Easter.When it technically starts and ends depends on the Church tradition.In England it is usually reckoned to start on Ash Wednesday. In popular culture it is a time for giving something up. But what are its biblical origins?
The English word Lent is not found in the Bible. It comes from the Anglo-Saxon word lencten which is the origin of the words Lenten and lengthen. Lenten was a historical word for the season of spring when the days lengthen. The modern term Lent is short for Lenten, but we still sometimes use Lenten as an adjective, such as when people talk about a Lenten fast, or a Lenten devotional.
The early Church focused on marking the crucifixion and the resurrection of Jesus through prayer, repentance and fasting, and this developed into 40 days of preparation before what we call Easter. By the fourth century AD, Lent had become normal practice. The idea of 40 days of self-discipline, was based on the time which Jesus spent in the wilderness (see Matthew 4.1–11, Mark 1.12–13 or Luke 4.1–13). All three accounts say that Jesus fasted for 40 days.
The number 40 is a significant biblical number. In Genesis, the flood was after 40 days and nights of rain (Genesis 7.12, 17). Moses and the Hebrews spent 40 years in the wilderness (Deuteronomy 29.5). Moses fasted for 40 days on Mount Sinai (Exodus 34.28). Nineveh had 40 days to repent (Jonah 3.4). In the New Testament, Jesus spent 40 days fasting in the wilderness, and later Jesus spent 40 days after the resurrection before his ascension (Acts 1.3). In fact, in many languages the word used for Lent comes from the Latin Quadragesima meaning fortieth including Y Grawys in Welsh, Cuaresma in Spanish, Carême in French, and Quaresima in Italian.
Fasting is a biblical principle. Many of the first Christians were from a Jewish background and early Christians observed Jewish fast days. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus teaches about fasting and says to his disciples, ‘When you fast ...’ (Matthew 6.16–18), not if you fast. In German the word for Lent, Fastenzeit, means fasting time.
Fasting does not necessarily mean eating absolutely nothing. Historically, and still in some historical Christian traditions, fasting meant giving up meat (but not fish) during Lent. This led to the tradition of using leftover eggs, sugar, and fat, which were commonly forbidden during Lent, to make pancakes before Lent starts, hence Pancake Day. These days many people fast, or give up, a particular luxury or habit such as chocolate, alcohol, smoking, television or social media.
Whilst Lent is not explicitly mentioned in the Bible, the principles of fasting, self-discipline and prayer are biblical, and many people find it a helpful practice to do with others. Some Christians take up a Lenten spiritual discipline such as reading a daily devotional or following 40 days of prayer for a particular issue. Some churches do a special Bible study series during Lent and in some places local churches get together and do inter-church Bible studies.