Out of all of the Catholic holy days that are observed in the liturgical calendar, Lent is one of the oldest. Of course, like all Christian holy days, it has changed over the years since its inception, but its purpose is the same; it is a time not only physical fasting but spiritual too. Self-examination, penance, self-denial, all in preparation for the coming of Jesus, that being Easter.
One of the Church’s earliest fathers, Irenaeus of Lyons, wrote of a period before the celebration of Easter, but it had only lasted a few days, nowhere near the 40 days that was later decreed.
The Council of Nicea, in 325 A.D, discussed a 40-day Lenten season of fasting and spiritual preparation, but due to the lack of records for that council, it is not clear according to historical facts if fasting was in baptismal preparation, or if it had anything to do with Easter.
Since very beginning of the Catholic Church, however, there has always been some preparation for Easter. One example of this comes to us in the form of a letter sent to Pope St. Victor I, from St. Irenaeus, commenting on the differences of the celebration of Easter between the Western and Eastern churches.”The dispute is not only about the day, but also about the actual character of the fast. Some think that they ought to fast for one day, some for two, others for still more; some make their ‘day’ last 40 hours on end. Such variation in the observance did not originate in ourown day, but very much earlier, in the time of our forefathers” (Eusebius, History of the Church, V, 24)
Some of these differences are very specific, such as how the Easterners only fasted on the weekdays, while the Western church’s Lent was one week shorter in total, but encompassed fasting on Saturdays as well as the weekdays. Aside from these small differences, it was held to high standards and was very serious. Only one meal was eaten per day, towards the evening, and it had no meat, fish, or any animal product. You can imagine how bland that would have been.
Until the mid-600’s, the preparation season of Lent began on Quadragesima, the fortieth Sunday. Pope Gregory the Great moved it to Wednesday, which we now have a holy day for, and it is called Ash Wednesday. This act was to secure the exact number of days per Lenten season, not counting Sundays, which were already feast days in and of themselves. Pope Gregory, the same pope that changed the order of the Lenten season and created Ash Wednesday, was also credited with the prefix of ‘Ash.’ You were to mark your forehead with ashes of palm fronds and wear sackcloths, these two things being symbols of repentance in the Bible.
By the 800s, the Lenten acts had already become lax. Instead of fasting until night, you were allowed to eat past 3 PM. By the year 1400, it was changed till noon. Various foods were allowed, such as fish. In 1966, however, the Catholic Church reduced fast days to Ash Wednesday and Good Friday alone, making these two holy days the ones of which we are the most familiar. However, practices in the Eastern Orthodox churches are still stringent and follow guidelines very similar to the ones made when the Lenten sacrifice was made official. Although Lent is mostly a Catholic tradition, it is still observed and practiced in some mainstream Protestant denominations, such as Anglicans and Episcopalians.
As you can see, the history of Lent is quite muddled, but it more or less serves the same purpose as it intended; to physical deny one’s flesh and to spiritually prepare oneself for the celebration of the coming of Jesus.
During the Lenten season, there are ample times to make confessions in order to receive the graces that are available during this important time of year.