While talking about Lent today I thought, “What is the meaning of Lent and when did it start?”. Since Kevin didn’t know I looked the term Lent up on the internet and what I found was quite interesting. The word “Lent” originally simply meant the spring season. It was then used to translate the Latin term Quadragesima which means “forty days” or more literally “fortieth day” and has been used from the time of the Anglo-Saxon period. Quadragesima was the Latin rendering for the Greek name for what we now call Lent, tessarakoste (fortieth), a word formed on the analogy of Pentecost (pentekoste).
As I continued to read about Lent on the New Advent Catholic site I noticed that from the time of Eusebius and St. Irenaeus to St. Athanasius to the time of St. Gregory in the 6th century there was a no consensus on whether Lent would last forty days or a shorter period of time. There was also no consensus on the type and timing of fasting among the Church Fathers during this period of time. At the time of St. Gregory in Rome there were six weeks and six days per week that people fasted, which equaled thirty-six days of fasting. The medieval writers continued this tradition and described the thirty-six day period, one tenth of three hundred sixty-five days, as spiritual tithing. It wasn’t until a later date that Lent as being a total of forty days starting from Ash Wednesday came into fruition. This makes perfect sense since the Latin term Quadragesima means “forty days”.
“Some of the Fathers as early as the fifth century supported the view that this forty days’ fast was of Apostolic institution. For example, St. Leo (d. 461) exhorts his hearers to abstain that they may “fulfill with their fasts the Apostolic institution of the forty days” — ut apostolica institutio quadraginta dierum jejuniis impleatur (P.L., LIV, 633), and the historian Socrates (d. 433) and St. Jerome (d. 420) use similar language (P.G., LXVII, 633; P.L., XXII, 475).”
But there was such a wide spectrum of practices regarding Lent and Easter during the first three centuries that the modern scholars nearly unanimously reject the view by some of the Fathers that the forty days fast was of Apostolic origin. But could the forty day period have been a revival from time of the Apostles? Were the Apostles following Jesus’ example of prayer and fasting in the desert for forty days?