January 2016 Print

The History of Lent

by Fr. Christopher Danel

The principal means of preparing for Easter has historically been with a dedicated Fast, along with prayer and almsgiving. It is essentially a time for interior purification and renewal, a sacred time of living the Christian life more intensely. This period begins with the Septuagesima preparation, which leads to Ash Wednesday and the forty days of Lent, which conclude with Passion Week and Holy Week. Its Latin name, Quadragesima, refers to the forty days, while its English name, Lent, derives from lencten, an Old English term for springtime.


This three-week preparation was added gradually to the beginning of Lent, once the latter was solidly established everywhere as a forty day period. It might be supposed that the Byzantine practice was adopted in the West by way of Italy, but its appearance in the West is rather more widespread than localized. Besides Italy, it was seen in England, Ireland, Spain, Northern Gaul, and Provence. Sources indicate its existence in Rome at the beginning of the sixth century. It had a retrograde development: before Quadragesima (fortieth day, beginning of Lent), the preparation was extended an additional week to Quinquagesima (fiftieth day, the count being rounded off) and then again to the sixtieth day, Sexagesima. The Council of Orleans (AD 541) refers to Sexagesima, and certain liturgical peculiarities point to the time when Sexagesima existed before Septuagesima was added. Some historical liturgical books began the Matins lessons of Genesis on Sexagesima, which now start instead on the First Sunday of Lent, and the Communion antiphon of the Mass began a series with Psalm 1, although this has since been transposed to Ash Wednesday. Septuagesima Sunday (seventieth day) became firmly established in the Roman Rite at the end of the sixth or beginning of the seventh century, and has given its name to the entire three week preparation for Lent. The primary characteristic of the season, besides the use of violet vestments, is the laying down (depositio) of the Alleluia until Holy Saturday. In some places, a plaque bearing the Alleluia was hanged about a straw man called the “Alleluia man,” and he was immolated in a festive bonfire. The Roman liturgy bids its farewell to the Alleluia at the first Vespers of Septuagesima with the verse Benedicamus Domino, Alleluia, Alleluia!

Ash Wednesday

Until the eighth century, at the latest, the Lenten fast started at the beginning of the sixth week preceding Easter, covering forty days including the Sundays, even though these were not fasting days.

St. Gregory the Great (†604) provided a symbolic interpretation of the six weeks by instructing that fasting six days for six weeks (6 x 6 = 36) was a temporal tithe: for the 365 days given him by God, man consecrates a tenth of these by the fast. When it was deemed more fitting to fast for forty full days, excluding Sundays from the count, four additional days were added to the beginning of Lent to reach the total of forty: Ash Wednesday and the three successive days. The Ambrosian Liturgy (Milan) and the Mozarabic Liturgy (Spain) never added the additional days. The Roman liturgy still retains some of the antique practice of initiating the fast on the first Sunday of Lent, particularly in the Divine Office, which begins its fully Lenten format only then. The liturgical texts of the first Sunday of Lent also refer to the “beginning” of the fast (initium jejunii).

With Ash Wednesday established as the beginning of the fast, the practices associated with the start of Lent were transposed to that day (penance in cinere et cilicio—in ashes and sackcloth), and it was given the title Feria IV cinerum, caput jejunii—Ash Wednesday, head [=beginning] of the fast. The Gospel assigned to the day for centuries, as attested to by St. Maximus of Turin (†465), is the instruction of the Lord on fasting: Cum jejunatis—When you fast, etc. In Rome, the Papal Mass would be held at Santa Sabina, and as the liturgical procession climbed the steep Aventine Hill to reach it, the antiphon was sung Immutemur habitu in cinere et cilicio—Let us change our garb into ashes and sackcloth. The phrase cinere et cilicio recalls the same penance of Judith in the Old Testament (Jud. 9:1). The primary characteristic of Ash Wednesday is, of course, the imposition of ashes. A council in Benevento (AD 1091) attests to that fact by stipulating that “everyone, clergy and laity, men and women, will receive ashes on Ash Wednesday.” The ashes are made from burning the branches used on the previous Palm Sunday (whether palms or, in the Italian custom, olive branches: rami olivarum).


Lent is historically inseparable from the Lenten Fast. There are references to the fast in the ante-Nicene Fathers, even in the mid-second century. St. Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyon, the disciple of St. Polycarp who sat at the feet of St. John, in a letter to Pope St. Victor I (AD 190), refers to the prepaschal fast as a longstanding custom among most Catholics (longe ante, apud majores nostros—long before, among most of us). The fourth century provides a greater abundance of sources, at which point writings appear from the East by Sts. Eusebius, Athanasius, and Cyril of Jerusalem, and in the West by St. Augustine (Africa), St. Ambrose (Northern Italy), and Egeria (Spain and the Holy Land). This last source is priceless. The Spanish nun made her pilgrimage to the Holy Land in AD 416 and meticulously recorded all she witnessed in her diary, the Peregrinatio, which has been through the centuries an important resource for liturgical history.

St. Leo the Great (†461) and St. Jerome (†420) both attest to the apostolic origin of the Church’s forty day fast, in imitation of the same fast not only of Moses and Elias, who thereby prepared themselves for the encounter with God, but principally the fast of the Lord Jesus Christ, who consecrated the forty day fast by His own observance of it at the beginning of His public life. While a fast prior to Easter was kept universally in the Church, its length was not uniform prior to the fourth century. Furthermore, the fast led up to Good Friday until the fifth century, at which point it was reckoned to conclude at Easter.

In some places the faithful fasted only during the few days preceding Good Friday, whether it be a few days, the whole week, or even forty hours, in commemoration of the forty hours Christ lay in the Sepulchre. There are some indications that the penitential practice in its more rigorous form came from the Patriarchate of Alexandria, known for its asceticism. In Syria the fast was especially rigorous, with the taking of only water, salt, and bread during the week preceding Easter, and nothing eaten at all during the Sacred Triduum. St. Leo attests to the forty day practice in Rome, as does St. Athanasius in a letter he wrote while in the Eternal City in AD 341. St. Peter Chrysologus (†450) indicates that the practice spread from Rome to the influential cities of Turin and Ravenna and beyond.

In the sacred liturgy, there is a distinct penitential tone. The altar is no longer decorated with flowers, the organ is no longer played, and the vestments are violet. Often gold altarware makes way for silver, and standing reliquaries are removed from the altar. Bishops use a simpler miter (or a combination of the simplex and the aurophrygiata, of yellow-cloth), setting aside the more ornate one called the “precious miter.” Historically there were also some mutations in the vestments for deacons and subdeacons, viz., folded chasubles and the deacon’s broad-stole.

The most distinctive element of the season, however, is that each day is assigned its own unique Mass texts, which provide a very rich instruction to both the observant faithful and, in earlier centuries, the catechumens. After the Postcommunion, the ferial Lenten Masses also include an Oratio super populum—a Prayer over the People.

Laetare Sunday

During the middle portion of Lent occurs what the ancient Roman liturgical documents termed Mediana week, led by Laetare Sunday, with its joyful introit Laetare Jerusalem—Rejoice Jerusalem. This week has historically been celebrated as the middle of the penitential season, with Tuesday being the exact midpoint. The Gospel assigned to the day for centuries, probably placed there by Pope Hilarion (†468), has been the text from St. John VII, 14: Jam die festo mediante—About the midst of the feast, which alludes to the midpoint day. Laetare Sunday, with its rose vestments, floral decorations, and organ music, provides a burst of joy and hope, spurring on the faithful to persevere in making a holy Lent. The origin of Laetare Sunday is tied to the primitive importance given to Mediana week as a whole. At the conclusion of the week comes Sitientes Saturday, which has historically been designated as a day for Ordinations.

Laetare Sunday, also called Rose Sunday, is the occasion for a quaint custom: on that Sunday, the Pope blessed the “Golden Rose” and originally laid it before the relic of the True Cross in the Basilica of the Holy Cross, which was a custom similar to one used in Byzantium in the tenth century. Later on, the Golden Rose was given to a shrine or to a dignitary, such as when Pope Urban II sent it to the Count of Anjou in AD 1096 for his role in the First Crusade. A Bull of St. Leo IX (AD 1049) decreed that the Golden Rose would be handmade each year by the monks of Alsace.


The Carolingian liturgical books refer to the fifth Sunday of Lent as de Passione Domini, or Passion Sunday. It begins Passiontide, which has its own liturgical customs. First, the prayers at the foot of the altar are truncated, as Psalm 42 is omitted. Second, the Gloria Patri disappears from the Mass texts. Third, in a custom dating to at least the ninth century, all crosses and holy images in churches are covered over for the remaining days of Lent. Passion Week concludes the last portion of Lent before the beginning of Holy Week, the most sacred week of the Church year, the customs of which will be considered in a subsequent article.

The Station Churches

Each day of Lent is assigned a “Station Church” in the City of Rome, as noted in every Missal, and this has its origin in the ancient papal liturgy, designating the church in which the pope would celebrate the Mass of the day. In Rome, the community would assemble at a nearby church called the collecta, and after initial prayers, all would process to the station church praying the Litany of the Saints, ending with the Kyrie eleison. In succeeding centuries, when the popes no longer celebrated the station Masses in person, the stations were still kept as privileged churches on their assigned days. Under Pope Leo XIII in 1879, in order to preserve and promote the practice, an association was formed called the Collegium Cultorum Martyrum, which is still active. The Mass texts often allude to the station church or the martyrs therein, and the significance of the stations for Catholics everywhere still holds. In military terminology, a place of vigil was called a statio, and this term was fittingly adopted by the early Christians to signify how we fulfill the Lord’s command at the Holy Mass with a militant piety: “pray and keep watch—orate et vigilate!”


The tenor of Lent as a time for Christians to do penance and unite themselves to the sufferings and death of the Lord Jesus Christ in order to rise with Him to a new life is succinctly explained by St. John Chrysostom. The faithful will be, he says, “diligently purified through prayers, through alms, through fasting, through vigils, through tears, through confession and everything besides—per preces, per eleemosinam, per jejunium, per vigilias, per lacrimas, per confessionem ac per cetera omnia diligenter expurgati” (Hom XXX in Gen., 1).

Fr. Christopher Danel was ordained in 2000. After completing the philosophical and theological curriculum, he took up specialization in the study of sacred liturgy, and is stationed in Atlanta, Georgia.