Weekend Post (South Africa)

Origins of Lent stretch back nearly 2000 years


I AM writing this column using my favourite editing software named Scrivener.

The name is an ancient English word for “scribe” from the latin ( scriba) via French ( escrivein). Historical­ly, scriveners were clergy who recorded the names of pagans enrolling at the beginning of Lent (Shrove Tuesday) to be prepared over the forty-day fast for their baptism during Easter.

Existing church members could also be shriven as a penitentia­l exercise, allowing them to reform their lives during the fast.

This past Wednesday, Christians worldwide began their annual Lenten observance, but each year the number of people who observe Lent declines.

That’s surprising, given Lent is one of the oldest observatio­ns on the Christian calendar. Like all Christian holy days and holidays, it has changed over the years, but its purpose has always been the same: self-examinatio­n and penitence, demonstrat­ed by self-denial, in preparatio­n for Easter.

Early church father Irenaus of Lyons (130-200) wrote of such a season in the earliest days of the church, but back then it lasted only two or three days.

In 325, the Council of Nicea discussed a 40-day Lenten season of fasting.

It is unclear whether its original intent was just for new Christians preparing for baptism, but it soon encompasse­d the whole church.

How exactly the churches counted those 40 days varied depending on location. In the East, one only fasted on weekdays. The western church Lent was one week shorter, but included Saturdays. But in both places, the observance was both strict and serious.

Only one meal was taken a day, near the evening. There was to be no meat, fish, or animal products eaten.

Until the 600s, Lent began on the first Sunday of Lent, but Gregory the Great (540-604) moved it to a Wednesday, now called Ash Wednesday, to secure the exact number of 40 days in Lent – not counting Sundays.

Gregory, regarded as the father of the medieval papacy, is also credited with the ceremony that gives the day its name. As Christians came to the church for forgivenes­s, Gregory marked their foreheads with ashes reminding them of the biblical symbol of repentance (sackcloth and ashes) and mortality: “You are dust, and to dust you will return” (Genesis 3:19).

By the 800s, some Lenten practices were already becoming more relaxed.

First, Christians were allowed to eat after 3pm. By the 1400s, it was noon. Eventually, various foods (like fish) were allowed, and in 1966, the Roman Catholic Church only restricted fast days to Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.

What is the point of these periods of abstinence that form part of most world religions?

The general consensus is that it helps focus and clarify the mind on the practice and prayers of the devotee. To go without, in order to go within.

ý Woods is a therapist and conflict mediator

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