Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The origin of Lent

William J. Tighe, a history professor at Muhlenberg College explained "The Making of Lent" a couple of years ago in Touchstone. The traditions we associate with the period did not come together all at once, but, he wrote:
Every indication is that this 40-day fast was of Egyptian origin, and, in its original purpose, was wholly unconnected with ascetical preparation for the celebration of the Lord’s passion, death, and Resurrection.

Rather, the ancient Egyptian fast was a commemoration and imitation of the Lord’s fasting in the wilderness for 40 days following his baptism by John the Baptist. This fast therefore began right after the feast of Epiphany, which celebrated the Lord’s baptism, and ended some considerable time, a matter of weeks, before Easter, but ended, nevertheless, with a climactic baptism of catechumens. ....

It thus seems that Lent, pursued backwards in twisting paths through time and history, has at last been disclosed to be a child of Egypt, a fasting period of 40 days that served both as a communal commemoration of Christ’s fast in the wilderness and as a preparation for the baptism of those to be received into the Church. It is the “ghost” of this baptismal day that survives in the baptismal elements of Lazarus Saturday in the Byzantine tradition.

In Egypt, the great fast originally had nothing to do with Easter; and Easter, strange as this may seem to Christians today, originally had nothing to do with baptism. It was the action of the Council of Nicaea that launched this fast into the Christian world generally. In variable and, at first, unstable ways, it was combined with older traditions of asceticism, Christian initiation, and the commemoration of the Lord’s passion, death, and Resurrection, before settling down into distinctive Eastern and Western patterns. [more]
Touchstone Archives: The Making of Lent