Contemplating Lent: Meanings and Origins


My first experience with the Lent season occurred when I was 12 years old. I had been raised in non-denom churches and the only celebrations I was aware of were the ones that involved chocolate eggs and trees covered in tinsel. What any of that had to do with Jesus I had no clue, but I loved chocolate and presents so no explanation was ever necessary.

At the age of 12 a childhood friend of mine showed up for PE one afternoon at school with his forehead marked in soot. I, of course, not knowing that it was Ash Wednesday thought the addition sign on his head was rather odd. Upon asking him the reason for the dark ash strewn across his forehead he replied it was because he was Catholic. I, personally, didn’t happen to think that this was a very good excuse for not keeping oneself clean. My friend continued, at his best effort, trying to explain the concept of Lent for Easter, and after several tries to subdue my attempts to correct his mispronunciation of ‘lint’ he walked away rather flustered. I could only shake my head, feeling rather bad for him at the thought of me enjoying chocolate rabbits and Cadbury eggs Easter morning while all he got in his basket was 40 days of dryer fluff.

It would be another seven years before I actually celebrated Ash Wednesday, and almost another decade from there until I had someone in my life who actually practiced Lent regularly.

So as this is the Lenten season, and millions of Christians of one form or another are celebrating this season, it seems right to post about it. So for those readers, who like me, know nothing about Lent and are wondering if it is something that should be practiced or ignored, given credence to or left as archaic, let’s take a look at the holy church season.

So what’s Lint about? Oh, it’s Lent? Okay, what’s Lent about?

Most people seem to have some concept of what Lent is: your girlfriend gives up wearing makeup, or your boss gives up coffee and cigarettes, and by Easter you find yourself single and unemployed.

For 40 days, not counting Sundays, a believer will give up something which is either a vice or possibly a distraction from their faith, which begins with Ash Wednesday and ends with Easter Sunday.

In the Church, the tradition of Lent goes back to an apostolic beginning; however, scholarship seems to indicate that this was probably not true. A letter from the early church father Iranaeus, in 190 CE, seems to indicate that there was yet to be a set practice of a Lenten season, or even a Lenten concept other than just a time of solemnness that should proceed Easter.

“…some think they ought to fast for one day, others for two days, and others even for several, while other reckon forty hours both of day and night to their fast.”

After this, two of the most notable mentions of the 40 day fast occur at the Council of Nicea, which was only a quick mention of a synod occurring before the 40 day fast, followed some years later by Saint Athanasius asking Alexandria to join the rest of Christendom in the practice.

Why the 40? And why give up something as awesome as coffee?

Well, the good news is you don’t have to give up coffee, it can be anything, depending on your denomination. The tradition started with general fasts and varied through the ancient world. Some of the faithful only ate one meal a day and others gave up all forms of animal products such as meat, cheese and milk, with the exception of fish. For a time it was apparently even a shorter and longer amount of days which proceeded Easter in this time of fasting which was eventually capped at 40 by Ash Wednesday.

The 40, in tradition, is paralleled to Christ’s 40 days in the desert as written in the synoptic Gospels, whose 40 days are paralleled with that of the 40 years that the Israelites wandered in the desert.

The number 40 is also not an uncommon number in the Bible, we find it quite a few times:

The rain for 40 days and 40 nights in the flood account.

Elijah’s 40 day hike up to Mount Horeb.

Moses being up on Mount Sinai with God for 40 days and nights.

Most of these occurrences have to do with ideas of preparation, again Christ’s 40 days and nights in the wilderness was his preparation before beginning His ministry. Therefore, going in suit with this idea, a believer prepares himself for the passion, death and resurrection of Christ by absolving from vices, or sinful acts, and stays in a place of repentance.

The Catholic Encyclopedia indicates:

“The purpose of Lent is to provide that purification by weaning men from sin and selfishness through self-denial and prayer, by creating in them the desire to do God’s will and to make His kingdom come by making it come first of all in their hearts.”

Such practices as: prayer, alms giving, repentance, abstinence, self-denial, and regular attendance to church/mass services occur during this time.

Wait. What do the 40 days of Christ in the wilderness have to do with His death?

Great question! I really don’t know.

The best answer that I can muster is that the term Lent was once referred to as the quadragesima by the Church, Latin for 40. This of course has much to do with this continuing idea of the 40 days of Christ in the desert. Later, during the middle ages the term Lent appeared for the holy season from the German word ‘Lenz’ or Spring, which may have more to do with Lent than the term quadragesima . During the expansion of the Church it wasn’t completely uncommon for pagan holidays to fall to the mercy of Christendom and change names. A great example of this is Christmas. Though we now celebrate the birth of Jesus on December 25 it once was used as a celebration in the cult of Mithras, a borrowed “god of light” from Persia by the Greco-Roman world. Of course, as you and I now know, we don’t celebrate Mithras day, but Christmas instead (even though Jesus probably wasn’t born on Dec. 25).

That all being said some scholars have linked the origin of the Lenten season prior to Easter with that of Tammuz, a Babylonian god remnant of the past who we find the Israelites consorting with even at the doors of the temple in Ezekiel 8:14.

“Then he brought me to the entrance of the north gate of the house of the Lord, and behold, there sat women weeping for Tammuz.” Ezekiel 8:14 ESV

Tammuz worship is best known for the mourning period prior to his annual resurrection. In the Babylonian pantheon of gods, Tammuz is known for the story of his life, death, and resurrection, which echoes similarities of Dionysus in the Greek assembly of deities. During the season prior to his resurrection, farmers would ‘shed the tears’ of the corn deities that mourned Tammuz into the ground where they would “die” in the earth and be “resurrected” in their season of growth.

So is Lent a sham then?

The concept of the resurrected deity is nothing new. The occurrence of the god-death and resurrection has happened in several religions, and so the relation between Tammuz, Lent, and Easter is speculative, but for the sake of argument, the information should be brought to light. However, I, as I’m sure some of my academic and religious peers would agree, believe that such things should be held loosely. Scholarship often creates more loose ends to be tied up than it does offer answers to questions which have been asked, or in some cases have not been asked at all.

So, is Lent important then? I can tell you that during my research for this post I ran over quite a few articles where some believers, not only did not celebrate Lent but also found it near blasphemous to participate in for one reason or another. On the other hand, a few million Catholics persist in the celebration as well as several protestant denominations. Realizing this, I’d like to think of Saint Augustine in context to Lent’s relevance (though I do realize he meant this in context to the sacraments and not holidays) he said ex opere operato, or “from the work done.” The efficiency is in what is done.

If Lent offers a believer the ability to feel closer to God then I don’t believe there is any reason that he or she should not continue in the practice. I once worked with a man who liked to call God, ‘Daddy’ when he prayed to Him, and I’m pretty sure someone out there would find that wrong, too, but I’ve seen the look on his face when he prayed, and I’ve seen the joyful look of those who faithfully attend the Lenten services and I think it’s rather beautiful. So keeping with Augustine I’ll leave with his famous quote for my vote on the subject, which I do take exactly as how the Saint meant, “Love God and do as you please.”

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  • Good stuff. I think you might find some Protestants that preform Lent as well. (They are usually converted Catholics though.)

    To me, I think we could all learn something out of sacrifice. That is what I see in Lent, is sacrifice. Although I do not practice Lent, I do see the power of sacrificing, and attaining self-control over self. If a person is doing it out of tradition then it should stop. If they are doing it to lose their idea of self, and recognize who Christ is… that’s cool with me.

    However, in the corporate sense I really struggle with called fasting. Still learning and praying about that.

  • Indeed many protestants do! My better half is a Methodist pastor, and she is currently practicing Lent right now with her parishioners as Easter approaches. I most def agree with you that, at least now, we can think of Lent as a time of sacrifice which leads us to contemplate more on our relationship with the Lord and motivates us to continue a walk farther into a self and spiritually disciplined life. I was once told that when fasting, every time you are hungry that is a reminder to refocus your attention on God.

    I understand your concerns on called fasting. My accountability partner has the same struggle and I believe that, probably with the same as Lent, it shouldn’t be done until really prayed about and understood. There is no purpose in performing an act or ritual in the name of God if there is understanding of why its being done.

    There is a lot more to be said on Lent and it’s history and rituals, unfortunately, there is only so much room to write!

  • Pingback: Contemplating Lent: Origins and Meaning : Thoughts on God: A Humble Search()

  • Travelcr1

    No blaspheming implied, but I wonder if the 40, forty, or the greek script looked appealing, pleasant, or even cool and was used throughout the bible for aesthetic reasons?

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