Lent the forty days' fast, is the preparation for Easter in the Western, Eastern, and Lutheran churches, and in the Church of England, and was instituted at a very early age of Christianity. In most languages the name given to this fast signifies the number of the days — Forty; but our word Lent signifies the Sparing Fast, for "Lenten-Tide" in the Anglo-Saxon language was the season of spring, in German Lenz. (For another etymology, SEE LENTILE. ) It is observed in commemoration of our Lord's fast in the wilderness (Matthew 4); and although he did not impose it on the world by an express commandment, yet he showed plainly enough by his example that fasting, which God had so frequently ordered in the old covenant, Twas also to be practiced by the children of the new. The observance of Lent was doubtless strongly confirmed by those words of the Redeemer in answer to the disciples of John the Baptist: "Can the children of the Bridegroom mourn as long as the Bridegroom is with them? But the days will come when the Bridegroom shall be taken away from them, and then shall they fast" (Lu 5:34-35). Hence we find, in the Acts of the Apostles, that the disciples, after the foundation of the Church, applied themselves to fasting. In their epistles, also, they recommended it to the faithful. The primitive Christians seem to have considered Christ, in the above-mentioned passage, as alluding to the institution of a particular season of fasting and prayer in his future Church, and it was therefore only natural that they should have made this period of penitence to consist of forty days, seeing that our divine Master had consecrated that number by his own fast, and before him Moses and Elijah had done the same, it was even deduced from the forty years' staying of the Israelites in the desert (Augustine, Serms. 264, § 5). SEE FASTING,
I. Practice of the Early Church. — In the age immediately succeeding that of the apostles, it does not appear that much value was attached to the practice of fasting. In the Shepherd of Hermas it is spoken of in disparaging terms. Very little notice was taken of fasting by the writers of the first centuries, which may be accounted for from the discouraging influence of the doctrines of Montanus, the tenets of the new Platonic school, and the progress of Gnosticism. Hence it seems that the observance of fasts was introduced into the Church slowly and by degrees. We learn from Justin Martyr that fasting was joined with prayer at Ephesus in the administration of baptism, which is worthy of being noted as an early addition to the original institution. In the 2d century, in the time of Victor and Irenaeus, it had become usual to fast before Easter, yet it consisted not in a single fast, but rather in a series of solemnities, which were deemed worthy of celebration. It was therefore the custom of several congregations to prepare themselves by mortification and fasting, inaugurated of the afternoon of the day on which they commemorated the crucifixion, and it was continued until the morning of the anniversary of the resurrection. The whole interval would thus be only about forty hours (Chrysostom, Orat. adv. Judaeos, 3, § 4, vol. 1, p. 611: οἱ πατέρες ἐτύπωσαν, κ. τ. λ..; Hom. 2 in Genesin, § 1, vol. 4, p. 8; Irenaeus, Epist. ad Victorin. Papanmi; Eusebius, Hist. Eccl. v. 24; Dionys. Alex. Epist. Canon.; Beveridge, Synoduon). Clement of Alexandria, however, speaks of weekly fasts. Tertullian, in his treatise De Jejunio, complains bitterly of the little attention paid by the Church to the practice of fasting: by which we may see that even orthodox Christians exercised in this matter that liberty of judgment which had been sanctioned by the apostles. Origen adverts to this subject only once, in his 10th Homily on Leviticus, where he speaks in accordance with the apostolical doctrine. It appears, however, from his observations, that at Alexandria Wednesdays and Fridays were then observed as fast-days, on the ground that our Lord was betrayed on a Wednesday, and crucified on a Friday. The custom of the Church at the end of the 4th century may be seen from a passage of Epiphanius: "In the whole Christian Church the following fast-days throughout the year are regularly observed: On Wednesdays and Fridays we fast until the ninth hour," etc.
But even at this comparatively late date there was no universal agreement in the practice of the Church in this matter, neither had fasts been established by law. Only later was the number of days (namely, forty) fixed according to the Greek and Latin names (τεσσαρακόστη = quadragesima). But for a long time the Oriental and Occidental churches differed. As the former did not permit its members to fast on the Sabbath, their fast continued one week longer (Socrates, Hist. Eccles. 1, 5, 100:22; Eusebius, Hist. Eccles. 5:24; Sozomen, Hist. Eccles. 7:19). The custom, so far as it existed, had been silently introduced into the Church, and its observance was altogether voluntary at first. This fasting consisted in abstinence from food until three o'clock in the afternoon, but at a later period a custom was introduced, probably by the Montanists, affecting the kind of food to be taken, which was limited to bread, salt, and water.
Some, however, who had become subject to the rules of the Church, tried to compensate themselves for their privation during the fasts by banqueting on the days preceding them (Chrysostom. De penitentia, hom. 5, § 5, vol. 2, p. 315). Others adhered literally to the rules of fasting by avoiding strictly the prohibited food, but prepared from that which was permitted costly dainties (Augustine, Serm. 208, § 1). The fathers and teachers of the Church of this period, as Chrysostom, Augustine, Maximus of Turin, Caesarius of Aries, etc., spoke often against this hypocritical fasting, and showed that abstinence would then only be of service when avoidance of sinful habits, etc., as well as contrition of heart was connected with it. The general design, then, of the primitive Church in fasting forty days, we may give in the words of Chrysostom: "Many heretofore were used to come to the communion indevoutly and inconsiderately, especially at that time, when Christ first gave it to his disciples. Therefore our forefathers, considering the mischief arising from such careless approaches, meeting together, appointed forty days for fasting and prayer, and hearing sermons, and for holy assemblies; that all men in these days, being carefully purified by prayer, and alms-deeds, and fasting, and watching, and tears, and confession of sins, aad other like exercises, might come, according to their capacity, with a pure conscience, to the holy table." "The rule of fasting for Lent varied greatly. It was usual to abstain from food altogether until evening, change of diet not being accounted sufficient. St. Ambrose exhorts men: Differ aliquantulum, non longe fines est diei' (Serm. 8 in Psalmn 118). The food, when taken, was to be of the simplest and least delicate kind, animal food and wine being prohibited. St. Chrysostom (Hom. 4 on Stat.) speaks of those who for two days abstained from food, and of others who refused not only wine and oil, but every other dish, and throughout Lent partook of bread and water only. The Eastern Church, at the present day, observes a most strict rule of fasting. Wine and oil are allowed on Saturdays and Sundays, but even these days are only partially excepted from the restrictions of Lent. The discipline of Holy Week is exceedingly rigorous. During Lent corporeal punishment was forbidden by the laws of Theodosius the Great: 'Nulla supplicia sint corporis quibus (diebus) absolutio expectatur animarum' (Cod. Theodos. 9, tit. 35, leg. 5.). Public games, and the celebration of birthdays and marriages, were also interdicted (Concil. Laodic. 51, 53). It was the special time for preparing catechumens for baptism, and most of St. Cyril's catechetical lectures were delivered during Lent. St. Chrysostom's celebrated Homilies on the Statutes were preached during this season. Daily instruction formed a part of the service, and holy communion was celebrated at least every Lord's day. The last week, the Holy or Great Week, was kept with still greater strictness and solemnity" (Blunt, Dict. Of Doctrinal and Historical Theology, p. 408).
II. Practice of later Times. — Fasting, after a time, ceased to be a voluntary exercise. By the second canon of the Council of Orleans, A.D. 541, it was decreed that any one who should neglect to observe the stated times of abstinence should be treated as an offender against the laws of the Church. The eighth Council of Toledo, in the 7th century (canon 9), condemns anyone who should eat flesh during the fast before Easter, and says that such offenders should be forbidden the use of it throughout the year. In the 8th century fasting began to be regarded as a meritorious work, and the breach of the observance at the stated times subjected the offender to excommunication. In later times some persons who ate flesh during Lent were punished with the loss of their teeth (Baronius, Annal. ad an. 1018). Afterwards these seveities were to a great extent relaxed. Instead of the former limitation of diet on fast-days to bread, salt, and water, permission was given for the use of all kinds of food except flesh, eggs, cheese, and wine. Then eggs, cheese, and wine were allowed, flesh only being prohibited, an indulgence which was censured by the Greek Church, and led to a quarrel between it and the Latin. In the 13th century a cold collation in the evening of fast-days was permitted.
The following are the fasts which generally obtained in the Church:
1. The annual fast of forty days before Easter, or the Season of Lent. The duration of this fast at first was only forty hours (Tertull. De Jejun. 100:2, 13; Irenaeus, ap. Euseb. ist. Eccl. E . 5, 100:24). By the time of Gregory the Great (in the 8th century) it had extended to thirty-six days, and it had beein so accepted by the Council of Nicaea; but by Gregory the Great, or by Gregory II, it was extended to forty days, the duration of the recorded fasts of Moses, Elias, and our blessed Savior (Ex 34:28; 1Ki 19:8; Mt 4:2). Hence the term Quadragesima (q.v.), — which had already been used to denote this period, became strictly applicable. Socrates (Hist. Eccl. 1. 7, 100:19), Basil the Great, Ambrode, and Leo the Great speak of this quadragesimal fast as a divine institution but this can mean no more than that the fast was observed in imitation of the example of the divine Redeemer (Concil. Genonsens. 100:7 — in canone apostolorum, 68: "Si quis Episcop., aut Presbyt., etc., sac. Quadragesimam Paschae, aut quartam feriam, aut Parasecevem non jejunaverit," etc.: Concil. Coloniens. ii, pt. 9, can. 6).
2. Quarterly-fasts, no traces of which occur before the 5th century, although Bellarmine (De bonis operibus, lib. 2, 100:19) says that the first three of these fasts were instituted in the times of the apostles, and the last by pope Calixtus, A.D. 224.
3. A fast of three days befobe the festival of the Ascension, introduced by Mamercus, bishop of Vienne, in the middle of the 5th century. In some places it was not celebrated until after Whitsuntide. It was called Jejunium Royationum, or Jejuniumn Litaniarum, "the fast of Rogations or Litanies," on account of certain litanies sung on those days. The words λιτανεία and λιέται, "litanies," in Latin Supplicationes et Rogationes, in their original signification, are but another name for prayers in general, of whatever kind, that either were made publicly in the church or by any private person. (Sce Euseb. Vit. Const. 1. 1, 100:14; 1. 4, 100:66; Chrysost. Hom. antequeam iret in exiliumn; Cods. Theod. lib. 16, tit. 5, "De hereticus," 1, 30, 1.)
4. Monthly fasts, a fast-day in every month except July and August (Concil. Illiberit. can. 23; Turon. 2, can. 18, 19).
5. Fasts before festivals, in the place of the ancient vigils which were abolished in the 5th century.
6. Weekly fasts, on Wednesdays and Fridays, entitled stationes, from the practice of soldiers keeping guard, which was called statio by the Romans ("Stationum dies," Tertullian, De Orait.; "Stationibus quartam et sextam Sabbati dicamus," Idem, De Jejunio; Τῆς νηστείας, τῆς τετράδος καὶ τῆς παρασκευῆς, Clem. Alex. Stroma. 1. 7). These fasts were not so strictly observed as some others, and were altogether omitted between Easter and Whitsuntide. The observance was enjoined especially upon the clergy and monks (Constit. Apost. v. 15; Can. Apost. 69). By the Council of Elvira, 100:26, at the beginning of the 4th century, Saturday was added to the weekly fasts, and this led to the gradual neglect of the Wednesday fast in the Western Church. The stations, or fasts on stationary days, terminated at three o'clock P.M. ("non ultra nonam detinendum," Tertullian, De Jejunio; "Quando et orationes fere nona hora concludat de Petri exemplo quod Act. 10 refertur," ib. 100:2). Hence Tertullian calls them half-fasts ("semijejunio stationum," De Jejun. 100:13). When a fast was continued the whole day, it was entitled Jejuium, or Jejunium perfectum; and when it lasted until the morning of the following day, or for several days together, it was distinguished by the title Superpositio (ὑπέρθησις ). The latter kind of fasts was commonly observed during the great week, or week before Easter; but it was not strictly peculiar to that season. It exceeded the others not only in point of time, but by the observance of additional austerities, such as the ζηροφαγία, or living on dry food, namely, bread, salt, and water, taken only in the evening.
7. There were also occasional fasts, appointed by ecclesiastical authority in times of great danger, emergency, or distress (Cyprian, Epist. 8, § 1; 57, § 3; Tertullian, Apol. c. 40; De Jejun. 100:13).
III. Practice in Modern Times. — The Christians of the Greek Church observe four regular fasts. The first commences on the 15th day of November, or forty days before Christmas. The second is the one which immediately precedes Easter. The third begins the week after Whitsunday, and continues till the festival of St. Peter and Paul. The number of days, therefore, comprised in these seasons of fasting is not settled and determined, but they are more or less long, according as Whitsunday falls sooner or later. The fourth fast commences the 1st of August, and lasts no longer than till the 15th. These fasts are observed with great strictness and austerity. The only days when they indulge themselves in drinking wine and using oil are Saturdays and Sundays.
In the English Church Lent was first commanded to be observed in England by Ercombert, seventh king of Kent, before the year 800. The Lenten fast does not embrace all the days included between Ash- Wednesday and Easter, for the Sundays are so many days above the number of forty. They are excluded because the Lord's day is always held as a festival, and never as a fast. These six Sundays are therefore called Sundays in Lent, not Sundays of Lent. The principal days of Lent are the first day of Lent (Caput Jejunii, or Dies Cinerune), Ash Wednesday, and the Passion-week, particularly Thursday and Friday in that week. There is also a solemn service appointed for Ash-Wednesday, under the title of a "Commination or denounlcing of God's anger and judgments against sinners." The last week of Lent, called Passion-week, has always been considered as its most solemn season. It is called the great week, for the important transactions which are then commemorated.
The same rules, observations, services, etc., are observed in the Protestant Episcopal Church of America as in the Church of England during the solemn season of Lent.
In nearly all the Protestant churches of Europe, particularly in the Lutheran Church, fasts and Lenten-season remain up to this day pretty much the same as in the Roman Catholic Church.
See Bellarmine, Opera; Bergier, Dictionnaire de Theologie, art. Careme; Pascal, La Liturgie catholique, s.v.; Gfrorer's Church History; Hook, Ch. Dict. s.v.; Riddle, Christian Antiquities, p. 660, 668; Hall, Harmony (see Index); Bible and Missal, p. 170; Walcott, Sac. Archaeol. p. 348; Procter, On Book of Common Prayer, p. 250, 276, 277; Wheatley, Book of Common Prayer, p. 217 sq. SEE FASTING.