The keeping of lent
Fr. Francis DesMarais
Each year, Christians throughout the world celebrate what is primarily a season of preparation for the approaching yearly reliving of the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Christ, The Great Pascha – the Christian Passover.
Through the centuries this time of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving has been celebrated in many different ways, for different reasons, at different times, and for different lengths of time. But the message of Lent has been and continues to be the same. It is a time of purification and preparation. It is a yearly reminder of the humble yet certain recognition that all humanity, still struggling with the condition of its fallen state, has a constant need to enter into a holy warfare throughout life; a combat which will affect the patterns of our living and establish priorities on a journey that leads us to the fulfillment of that perfection we are called to inherit. The keeping of Lent is the yearly preparation for the journey to Jerusalem, the celebration of the Great Pascha, both of which are the foretastes of the what we are called to experience and inherit as adopted sons and daughters of God the Father through Christ Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit. This annual “tune up” strengthens and sustains us on our journey to the kingdom. It is for this reason that we should be aware and appreciative of the importance of Lent in our lives as Christians; to be cognizant of the great heritage we have received in its traditions and the grace that is ours in its keeping – its celebration. In the study and recounting of these traditions, we should not consider this an exercise undertaken in a spirit of pedanticism – narrow minded scholarship or boastful adherence to rules;- but rather as a participation – a sharing – in the prayers and actions of the saints who have gone before us and bequeathed to us this time tested method of spiritual warfare which brings about the enrichment of the life we lead as we seek to become more and more in the image and likeness of God – our calling from first creation. It is with this in mind that we pause to review the history and development, the life of common prayer, and the tradition of ascetic practice which has been given to us, and to apply this heritage to the keeping of Lent.
Why the Fast ? There are many who would say that our Lord did not command us to fast, and would even say that his criticism of those who abused the practice was an indication of his disapproval. The contrary is surely true. We must always look to “how” Jesus lived as an indication of his commands for us. Jesus gives us examples of how to attain a holy life, sometimes by his words and sometimes by his actions. His very deeds are commands, because when he does something silently or in action he is making known to us what we ought to do to attain the fulness which he imparts to us. Therefore when he withdrew to the desert he gave us an example of how we should also discipline our lives in order to become more and more a living manifestation of his holiness.
In his teaching, The Lord never separated fasting from almsgiving and prayer (Matthew 6, 1-18). In the writings of the Fathers, the first teachers of the Church, the faithful were constantly reminded of this; the sermons of St. Leo the Great (+ 461) are in particular a good example.
But as the salvation of our souls is not gained solely by fasting, let us fill up what is wanting in our fasting with almsgiving to the poor. Let us give to virtue what we take from pleasure. Let the abstinence of the man who fasts be the dinner of the poor man. Let us have thought for the protection of the widow, for the welfare of the orphans, for the comforting of those who mourn, for the peace of those who live in discord. Let the stranger be given shelter. Let the oppressed be aided, the naked be clothed, the sick cherished; so that whosoever has offered from his own works of justice a sacrifice of righteousness to God, that Author of all good things, may merit to receive from Him the reward of a heavenly Kingdom.
And then hear the words of St. Peter Chrysologus, Bishop of Ravenna (+ 450).
There are three things, my brethren, by which faith stands firm, devotion remains constant, and virtue endures. They are prayer, fasting, and mercy. Prayer knocks at the door; fasting obtains; and mercy receives. Prayer, Fasting, and Mercy : these three are one, and they give life to one another.
St. Gregory the Great (+ 604) emphasizes the dimension of sharing and almsgiving when he says: But let no one believe that fasting alone is sufficient; for the Lord tells us by the mouth of the Prophet, “the kind of fasting I want is this: Remove the chains of oppression and the yoke of injustice, and let the oppressed go free.” And then he continues, “Share your food with the hungry and open your homes to the homeless poor. Give clothes to those who have nothing to wear, and do not refuse to help your brothers.” (Isaiah 58, 6-7) The Lord therefore blesses the fast which uplifts our hands in almsgiving before his eyes, which is joined to the love of neighbor, and founded on compassion. That which you deny yourself, give to another; so that by the means which your body is weakened, the body of your hungry neighbor may be nurtured.
In all of our prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, there must also be the recognition and admission that we are all in need of repentance. Lent is also a time of penitence. In the early Church, the penitents, or sinners who repented publicly, were solemnly reconciled with the community of the faithful during this period. It goes without saying that public penance has more or less fallen into disuse in the Church today, but the idea of penitence has remained. Are we not all in different degrees, sinners and penitents ? Perhaps an answer in the negative might be the source of many of the problems we encounter not only in the Church but in society as well. It is this period which leads us toward Pascha (Easter) which is surely very propitious for repentance and expiation. Lent is therefore an opportunity to examine our conscience and to seek reconciliation with the Lord, for we have all sinned and come short of the glory of God.
Lent is also a time of spiritual growth and illumination. In the early Church, catechumens, that is to say those who were being prepared for baptism, were the subject of special prayer and concern during Lent. They were instructed with great zeal and in parts of the Church were baptized on the night of Pascha. Although the “catechumenate” is no longer usual in many of our Churches, we still pray for those adults who are in serious preparation for the gifts of grace of Baptism. In lands where the Church is yet a missionary Church this practice is very much a part of the prayer of the community, especially during the Lenten season. We may once again experience the joy of this prayer even in our own “Christian” country, as more and more of our population are not baptized at infancy. And we ourselves after all never stop being catechumens. The Word of God made flesh never ceases to educate us. The Holy Spirit never ceases to enlighten us-never stops knocking at the door of our hearts. Lent is a time which is particularly well suited to hearing, to listening to the voice of God.
Lent continually reminds us that we are on a journey. It commemorates Israel’s forty years of wandering in the wilderness, those forty years during which the chosen people, having left the captivity of Egypt and crossed the Red Sea, went forward with faith towards the far off promised land, receiving their earthly food from God in the form of manna, and their spiritual food in the form of the Ten Commandments. Sometimes they rebelled and fell into sin, but they reached their goal. Isn’t it amazing how we are still so much like those wanderers in the desert? Lent also speaks to US of liberation, of pilgrimage, of crossing an arid desert, of a meeting with God on Sinai, and also of failure and reconciliation.
Lent also recalls the forty days that the Lord Jesus spent in the desert during which he contended with Satan, the tempter. Our Lent must also be a period of fighting against temptation, especially against the temptation of our most commonly experienced failings and shortcomings, for the tempter – the devil, the evil one – is still in our midst.
How did the Church – following the example of her Lord and Master – develop this yearly practice? One must remember that the practice of fasting was inherited from the Jewish tradition and was most likely practiced by many of the first generation Christians. Indeed Wednesdays and Fridays throughout the year were regular days of fasting in the very early Church. The first appearance of a pre-Pascha (Easter) Forty day Fast occurred at the end of the 3rd Century or the beginning of the 4th Century. It is referred to in the official documents in Canon 5 of the Council of Nicaea (325 A. D.). Indeed there are references in the letters of St. Athanasius in the year 330 AD admonishing the people of the Church of Alexandria to keep the fast so as to not be a source of reproach by the Christians of the other Churches who were very faithful in the keeping of the Lenten discipline. It is here that we find an indication that there were various reasons for following the example given by Christ with regard to this practice. Some documents produce credible evidence that this fast first appeared in the Coptic Church (the Church of Alexandria) as a commemoration of Christ’s fast in the desert immediately following His Baptism in the Jordan by John. Keep this in mind for we will return to this later on. However most scholars of the Liturgy identify the beginnings of the pre-Paschal fast with the period of preparation for the baptism of converts. Remember that infant Baptism was still not the normative practice at this time. When this became the case the Pre-Paschal Fast became increasingly penitential in character and also a preparation for the celebration of the Death and Resurrection of Christ. Once again, remember that at this early stage the Lenten fast was merely an extension of the regular weekly fast of Wednesdays and Fridays held throughout the year, thus including Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays. Eventually in the Church at Rome it included Saturdays. However in the Eastern Churches Saturdays are not days of fasting.
The period of fasting was always accompanied by meetings for prayer and for listening to the Word of God. It must also be noted that on days of fasting there was no celebration of the Divine Liturgy. This tradition — continued today in Orthodox Churches – is of particular importance in the understanding of the liturgical nature and keeping of the fast. Fasting is not just a private discipline, it is an action of the whole Christian community. The ancient tradition states this clearly – under no circumstances was the Divine Liturgy celebrated Monday to Friday during the weeks of Lent – with one exception, the Feast of the Annunciation, March 25. During the week however, a special service – The Liturgy of the Pre-Sanctified Gifts, sometimes referred to as the Liturgy of St. Gregory of Rome, was celebrated.
In this Service the faithful gathered to pray, listen to Scripture, sing Psalms and hymns and share the Sacred Bread and Wine, the Body and Blood of the Lord which had been consecrated on the previous Lord’s Day. This practice continues today, especially on Wednesdays and Fridays, in many Orthodox Churches. In the West, this practice was abandoned by the 10th Century as the practice of celebrating “private” or memorial Masses in the monastic communities became prevalent. This altered immensely the concept of fasting for Latin Christians. The communal nature of the Fast had been lost, not to mention the implications that this had in the celebration of the Divine Liturgy. Today, the Roman Catholic Church, and those who follow its liturgical tradition, have all but forgotten the practice and spirit of fasting which was so integral to the early Christian keeping of Lent.
Let me say a few words about the length of this fasting period. In the letters of St. Athanasius, already mentioned, we find reference to the six week period which included Saturdays and Sundays. Although there is indication that this period may have been the weeks immediately following the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord in the Jordan. There would have been therefore a period of time between the Great Fast of Lent and the celebration of the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Christ – Pascha. The famed traveler of the early Church, Egeria, who has left us an account of her travels – records that in Jerusalem Lent lasted eight weeks, which included Holy Week but not Saturdays and Sundays. This seems to have been the practice also in Antioch and Cyprus. The practice in Constantinople was a 40 day period of fasting, which did not include Holy Week and which ended on the Friday before Palm Sunday. To make things even more interesting, the six weeks of fasting in Rome could actually have been three weeks of fasting alternating with three weeks of non-fast. We are certain however that by the time of St. Leo the Great (440-61 AD) There was a six week Lenten fast in Rome beginning on a Sunday night and extending to Holy Thursday. By the beginning of the 6th Century the fast was begun in the middle of the previous week (Wednesday) so that the Sundays of Lent would not be counted as Fast days, for Sunday is a celebration of the Resurrection throughout the year and therefore not a day of fast. Therefore in the Western tradition the Forty Days of Lent are counted from Ash Wednesday and include Holy Week but not Sundays, while in the Eastern tradition Lent begins on Sunday evening (Monday) of the seventh week before Pascha and extends to the Friday before Palm Sunday excluding Holy Week but including Sundays. For the most part these variations reflected the right of each Church to establish local custom without the criticism or intimidation of the other Churches. We could learn from their example today.
Let me say a few words concerning the weeks prior to the beginning of the Great Fast. The Pre-Lenten Season (the Sundays of Septua-, Sexa-, and Quinqua-gesima) had developed in Rome by the time of Gregory the Great (end of the 6th century) but was not a practice limited to the Church in that city. It was celebrated in other Western Churches, in Gaul, Spain, as well as in the Churches of the Celtic and Anglo-Saxon peoples. In the Eastern Church it was commemorated as a season of probably five weeks ending with the week known as Cheesefare. These weeks, whether three or five, were weeks of limited fasting. They were a time of preparation for the Great Fast. The time of three weeks preparatory to Lent was adopted by the entire Western Church once the liturgical practice of the Church of Rome became dominant throughout western Europe by the 8th Century. Their continued commemoration through the centuries not only offered a time of liturgical and homiletic preparation for the season of lent, but the also prepared the body and the soul for the disciplines of the Lenten fast. Like many of the valuable practices of the keeping of Lent these Sundays have become nonexistent in the non-Orthodox traditions, especially since the “reforms” of the Second Vatican Council of the Roman Church.
After the Sunday of Quinquagesima, the Western Church was ready for Lent. The following is a description of how it commenced on Ash Wednesday. A liturgical book of the 8th century describes the day. The entire community of the Church in Rome would gather at the Church of St. Anastasia, at the foot of the Palatine Hill. The Bishop of Rome began the ceremony. They would then all walk in procession to the top of the Aventine hill to celebrate the first Lenten Liturgy in the Church of St. Sabina. During the procession the people sang the antiphon “LET US PUT ON SACKCLOTH AND ASHES.” At this time in Rome this chant had only symbolic meaning, but in the church north of the Alps (the Rhenish Church) there was a desire to give the text a corresponding ceremonial practice, that of covering oneself with ashes. This was a purely personal action as a sign of penitence based on the citations from the Old Testament (Joshua 7, 6, I Samuel 13, 19, Ezekiel 27, 30, Job 2, 12, & 42, 6, Esther 4, 3). It was a private way for sinners to give a public sign of their repentance, but had no liturgical significance. During the 10th and 11th centuries this practice made its way south to Italy and there became part of the liturgical practice of the Church of Rome by the 12th century. It was not until the 13th century that the Pope submitted himself to the public penitential act as part of the ritual of ash Wednesday.
As I mentioned earlier, the main purpose for the setting aside of this pre-Paschal season, at least in the early days of the Western Church, was the preparation of the catechumens for baptism. By the 4th century, the process for instructing those who were to be baptized and brought into the family of the church had become well organized. Lent offered an appropriate framework in which to conduct the final preparation of the catechumens who would be baptized during the Vigil of Pascha. As early as 220 AD it was considered appropriate to confer Baptism on the Feasts of Pascha and Pentecost. Although there were traditions in other Churches which allowed for the Rite of Baptism to be administered on other feasts, the baptismal catechesis of most of the early teachers of the church assume no date other than Pascha for the baptism of converts. We can ascertain the importance and systematic association to the Lenten Season of this process in the following ways.
1. Those who wished to be baptized had to present their names to the Bishop at least forty days in advance. Therefore those who were to be baptized at Easter would do this at the beginning of Lent. If the Bishop was satisfied with their intent he would register their names.
2. The candidates then underwent repeated exorcisms. When the exorcisms were well advanced the candidates were subjected to scrutinies — scrutinized by exorcisms” in the words of St. Leo the Great. Although the exact meaning of this is somewhat obscure it is most likely that last of these exorcisms was performed by the Bishop so that he could be certain that the candidate was spiritually prepared for Baptism.
3. Throughout Lent the Candidates were to attend daily instructions. During the first part of Lent the instruction dealt with the Scriptures, the Resurrection, and Faith. In the second part of the Lenten season the instruction focused on the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer. In Western Churches the Creed was taught in three stages; the handing-over, explanation, and recitation. The first of these ceremonies took place on a Sunday in the middle of Lent; in Rome it was the 3rd Sunday, in Jerusalem the 5th, and in Milan, under St. Ambrose, it was the Sunday before Pascha 4. The candidates had to observe the fast for forty Days. In some places this not only applied to food but also to the legitimate practices of marriage. The pleasure of a bath was also renounced, but the candidates were allowed a bath on Holy Thursday to make themselves decent for Baptism.
These examples show the importance of the keeping of Lent in the life of the early Church as it applied to the celebration of Baptism, and one might add, the various traditions that existed compatibly from Church to Church. But it should also be noted, as we have already done, that the whole community shared in this time of preparation. The whole Church entered into this Holy Season. From the beginning of the 6th century, no feasts or festivals were celebrated in Lent, except for the Feast of the Annunciation on March 25. No Baptisms were performed. There were also no marriages in Lent from the 4th Century on in both the Eastern and Western Churches. (Canon 52 of the Council of Laodicea, 363 AD.) These practices were part of the liturgical life of the Church and were canonically applied to the full practice and understanding of this period of the Great Fast. It must be admitted that most Christian communities have today abandoned the practice and the spirit of these traditions with the result that fasting has lost its liturgical significance in the keeping of Lent. Since the private practices of Lent are no longer “juridically” imposed “under pain of sin” their consideration and implementation have become diminished.
In all of the above we have considered many of the traditions which are presented to us in the celebration of Lent. We should not abandon them or apologize for them. When we look to the past – to our collective memory – we call to mind he reality of our salvation – and this is made present each year as we keep this “holy spring.” It is wrong for us to look only to the future and forget the practices of the past, regarding them as unimportant aberration. We live by faith, a faith which is depicted in the actions of those who have gone before us on this journey; who by their actions have left us an example and the means of preserving this faith. We are presented with the mission of bequeathing this faith to future generations in its fulness and with true glory. The liturgical celebrations of this season, and our personal application of the ascetic disciplines of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, are a sure way of bringing this mission to fruition. We celebrate Lent by allowing the traditions we have discussed, traditions which should become a part of our lives as Christians at all times, become a joyful force in the living out of this Holy Season. These traditions will not destroy our freedom – but perfect it. Our Lenten journey is more than an imposed set of rules, more than a “schedule of extra Services,” even beyond the “sanctification of time.” It is the sanctification of life by mediating to us the presence of Christ in our time. By living Lent in its fulness, in the Liturgy and discipline of the season, there is no division of life into the sacred and the secular, but a transfiguration of one to the other. The Lord did not come to “symbolize” his presence in our celebrations, but to transform and save (make whole) by his real presence in you and in me; a presence that is made manifest in our wholesome and complete keeping of the Great Fast, the 40 days of Lent.