Many of the answers to these questions are found, or at least hinted at, in a recent piece by Tim Kimberley of Reclaiming the Mind (the blog of the Protestant ministry Credo House), fittingly called A Short History of Lent. It's a good start, but Kimberley gets a number of details wrong, and omits a whole lot. So let's use the article as a jumping-off point, with corrections as needed.
I. Why is Lent Forty Days?
|Temptations of Christ (San Marco) (12th c.)|
The number 40 has held significant importance throughout biblical history. The rains fell on Noah in the ark for 40 days and 40 nights. Moses was on top of Mount Sinai receiving the Ten Commandments for 40 days and 40 nights. Elijah walked 40 days and 40 nights to the mountain of the Lord. Jesus, most importantly, fasted and prayed for 40 days and 40 nights before starting his public ministry.
But here's something that isn't explicit in Scripture, but which is fascinating nonetheless: “the earliest of Christians believed Jesus was dead in the grave for 40 hours.” If you assume that Christ was in the Tomb from about 4 p.m. on Good Friday until dawn on Easter Sunday, 40 hours is about right. If that's right, it would be a fascinating explanation for why the number 40 was such a significant number for preparation in both the Old and New Testament.
II. How Old Is Lent?
We can trace Lent almost all the way back to the disciples. This is quite extraordinary. The heroic theologian Irenaeus (who died in 203AD and was discipled by Polycarp who himself was believed to be discipled by the Apostle John) wrote a letter to Victor I. This letter was thankfully recorded by the early church historian Eusebius. Irenaeus is telling Victor about their Easter celebrations.In this letter he writes:
St. Irenaeus of Lyons (130 - 202)
“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 our own day, but very much earlier, in the time of our forefathers” (Eusebius, History of the Church, V, 24).Now, it's great that Kimberley explains the incredible antiquity of Lent, and he's spot on in pointing to Irenaeus for proof. Irenaeus, a spiritual grandson of the Apostle John, is describing, in the late 100s, a pre-Easter fast that originated “very much earlier, in the time of our forefathers.” Granted, Irenaeus describes an intense forty hour fast, rather than a less intense fast spanning forty days, but the contours of Lent are clearly present, even here.
III. What About the Role of the Papacy?
|Pope St. Victor I|
But here's what makes this story so fascinating. The churches of Asia Minor had ancient traditions related to Easter, and the penitential season prior to it, which differed from the rest of the Church. The question facing the early Church was: should Easter always be celebrated on a Sunday, or should it be tied to the beginning of Passover? While most of the Church said Sunday, the churches around Asia Minor said to do it based on Passover.
The weakest spot in Kimberley's otherwise pretty good article is his claim that “the 40 day period of Lent may be a translation mistake.” His argument is that the section I quoted above (in which Irenaeus describes a forty-hour fast) was mistranslated by Rufinus (340-410 A.D.) as a forty day fast:
For some time, the Church simply tolerated a diversity of styles, but in the 190s A.D., Pope Victor I tried to impose uniformity. He declared that the entire global Church had to do it on Sunday, and excommunicated those bishops who wouldn't upset their local traditions, along with their entire dioceses. While the pope certainly had the authority to do so, this seemed like overkill, and caused an outcry from other bishops (such as Irenaeus, who in addition to being a “heroic theologian,” was Bishop of Lyons, France, and a staunch defender of the papacy's Apostolic succession from St. Peter).
And note what's bothering these other bishops. It's not the idea that the Bishop of Rome has the authority to discipline and even excommunicate anyone, anywhere in the Church, including other Bishops. It's that he's using this authority in an imprudent way. To think of it analogously: if a father grounded one of his kids for a month for having untied shoes, the other kids would probably balk, not because they question dad's authority to ground, but the cavalier manner in which he used it. All of this, properly understood, is an affirmation of papal authority in the early Church, particularly since Easter Sunday ended up winning out globally.
IV. Is the 40 Day Period of Lent a Translation Error?
|Richard Linderum, Monk Botanist (19th c.)|
A man named Rufinus translated Eusebius’ History of the Church from Greek into Latin. For some reason he put a punctuation mark between “40″ and “hours.” It gave people reading the letter of Irenaeus the idea that Irenaeus meant “40 – 24 hour days.”But right after that, he writes:
Do you see the problem? The Council of Nicea, in 325, is treating it as a commonly-accepted fact that Lent is 40 days. Rufinus wasn't even born yet. So unless the Nicene Fathers were time-travelers, Kimberley's theory here doesn't hold water.By the 300′s AD a 40 day celebration period leading up to Easter appears to be widespread. The Council of Nicea (325AD) mentions two synods should be held each year, “one before the 40 days of Lent.”
So there you have it. Lent, in some form or another, has been around since incredibly early in the Church, possibly back to the time of the Apostles. The practice is rooted in Scripture, and by 325, its length of forty days prior to Easter seems to have been uniformly accepted throughout the Church. In the process, we saw the hand of both the early Papacy (Victor I, in the 190s), and the early Church Councils (the First Council of Nicea, in 325).
Sadly, Protestantism, in rejecting the authority of both Church Councils and the papacy, is left without a coherent mechanism to establish any unified date for Easter, or to establish any particular length of time for Lent. Having said that, it's heartening that folks like Tim Kimberley are willing to explore the issue, and hopefully, others will follow him in investigating these matters.