The Christian observance of Lent may have originated as a period of fasting for candidates for baptism at Easter; the period varied in length and could be as short as one of two days. Mention of a general forty-day period of fasting occurs in the fourth-century Canons of Nicaea, but the Western church did not settle on the present scheme until the seventh century, when the beginnings of Lent was moved back to Ash Wednesday so that Sundays (which could not be fast days) would not be counted in the forty days. (The Eastern church still spreads the season over eight or nine weeks.) The association of Lent with Jesus’ forty days of testing in the wilderness (Matt. 4:2; Luke 4:2) is acknowledged by liturgical historians to be an afterthought that did not affect the development of the season. The name “Lent” comes from an Anglo-Saxon word meaning “spring,” the “lengthening” of days with the approach of the vernal equinox.
Lent offers the opportunity for the observance of certain biblical disciplines. In Israelite religion, fasting or “humbling the soul” was directed for the Day of Atonement (Lev. 23:27, 29). It was an act of mourning (Josh 7:6; 1 Sam. 31:13; 2 Sam. 1:12) or penitence (1 Kings 21:27; Joel 1:14) and was also practiced by prophets seeking direction from the Lord in Crisis situations (Moses, Deut. 9:18 and Elijah, 1 Kings 19:8; both forty days). Jesus assumed his followers would occasionally fast (Matt. 6:16-18), though he did not command it, and his disciples did not fast, as did the Pharisees, while he was with them (Luke 5:33-35). In recent years the liturgical churches have moderated the strict fasting formerly associated with Lent, and evangelical Christians have never consistently observed it. Fasting as a means of seeking direction from the Lord is often practiced in charismatic churches but not in association with any liturgical season. Most Protestant communions that observe Lent have done so with emphasis on additional times of worship or special disciples of devotion and on self-denial in order to redirect funs toward worthwhile causes. While the Christian life-style of self-denial should characterize the walk of the believer throughout the year and not just during one season, the discipline practiced during Lent has particular value in leading the church to a deeper experience of Christ’s passion in preparation for the more joyous experience of Easter.
- From Webber, Robert E. "Lent." The Complete Library of Christian Worship. Vol 1: The Biblical Foundations of Christian Worhsip. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc, 1993. p 200