The Historical Development of Lent

The practices of Lent have developed from several different streams of catechumenal, penitential and liturgical practices. The preparatory fast on Holy Saturday for catechumens prior to the vigil was joined to the traditional Friday fast of early Christians, creating a foundation which evolves into the eventual fast of forty days finding its basis in the imitation of Jesus’ life. This second pattern exerts an influence on both the focus and duration of Lent and consequently both patterns are integral to the study of the historical development of Lent. 

Catechumenal Preparation
The earliest document which actually describes the process of baptismal preparation is the Apostolic Tradition (Hippolytus, c. 215). Although Hippolytus relates the ritual moments of the conversion process in detail, there is no specific mention of a Easter connection or details of the preparation process prior to the ritual moments. 

By the 5th century, however, there is evidence in Rome of a fast which extended from the reading of the Passion narratives on the Sunday before Easter until Easter Sunday. This week-long paschal fast, known as early as the 3rd century in other geographical centers, does not seem to be connected to the catechumenal preparation in Rome. However, by the late 5th century we have evidence of a three-week fast and preparation specifically connected to the catechumenal preparation. As the adult catechumenal process began to fade – most people in the Roman Empire were second, third or fourth generation Christians – the catechumenal emphases began to diminish. However, the catechumenal preparation process was not the only source of fasting traditions. 

Penitential Fasting
The Council of Nicea in 325 mentions an undefined forty-day fasting period in its fifth canon. Athanasius of Alexandria, exiled to Rome in 340, writes back to his own church about a fast of forty days kept in Rome, and evidence of a pattern of forty fast days multiplied quickly within the second half of the 4th century throughout Christianity. 

The pattern of 40 day fasting had already appeared in the Alexandrian church of Egypt as early as the 3rd century, but this fast was placed in the forty-day period immediately after the celebration of Epiphany, paralleling Jesus’ sojourn in the desert following his own baptism – however, the practice was largely ascetical not catechumenal. These ascetical practices moved with the monastic movement from Egypt to the Celtic monastic tradition. It seems that during this transition there was a reconciling of the traditional catechumenal fast of the West and the post-Epiphany fast of the East — all in a time of a waning of adult baptisms. This confluence of factors seems to explain the rise of penitential aspects of Lent. 

During the 5th and particularly the 6th centuries, the practice of adult baptism continued to decline for several reasons, most notably because of the rise of infant baptisms for the offspring of Christian parents, itself encouraged by growing adherence to an understanding and doctrine of original sin. The result is a diminishing of the ritual process of conversion, specifically the latter part of the catechumenate simultaneous with the season of Lent, which found its logic in the personal commitment and response of adult converts. In the theological space created by the diminishing of the baptismal dimensions of Lent, the penitential aspects, which were also present from the earliest references to Lent, blossomed into full growth. 

The ancient liturgical sources and calendars of Western Christianity reveal a dual extension in the season of Lent: 

  • an expansion of Lenten rituals reflected in the growth of weekday stations and liturgies, and
  • a lengthening of the season of Lent by the addition of an anticipatory period prior to the First Sunday of Lent.

From the homilies of Pope Leo I in the 5th century we learn that Wednesdays and Fridays were the only official assemblies during the week and that the eucharist was not celebrated on those days. The fasting of Lent was observed Monday through Saturday. By the 6th century, however, the days of assembly had been extended to Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays during Lent and they included the celebration of eucharist. The 6th century also saw the official extension of Lent to include the Wednesday and Friday before the First Sunday of Lent. By the 7th century, this Wednesday preceding Lent I becomes the beginning of the fast, the caput ieiunii, which will later become known as Ash Wednesday, and which allowed for a precise number of forty fasting days. Both of these Roman developments were spread throughout the Western Christian realm by the liturgical renewal of Charlemagne which adopted Roman liturgical customs as universal. 

The custom of distributing ashes on Ash Wednesday did not originate with Roman tradition but came from the Mozarabic (Spain) and Gallican (French) liturgical traditions where it was connected with entrance into the order of penitents. Although not at first related to the season of Lent, the custom gained popularity as many of the penitential practices once reserved for serious public sinners became standard for all the faithful. It was not until 1091, when Pope Urban ii ordered the imposition of ashes on the heads of all the faithful, that the reception of ashes became mandatory and the Wednesday preceding the First Sunday of Lent became known as Ash Wednesday. This reception of ashes by all the faithful was in keeping with the primary stress of Lent which had become penance, and conversely, the demise of baptismal theology within the season. 

The popularity of Ash Wednesday and of the ritual of ashes for the faithful was paralleled by a change in emphasis on the last Sunday of Lent, Palm Sunday. This Sunday was maintained as Passion Sunday in Rome well into the medieval age, but elsewhere the second focus of celebration on the sixth Sunday of Lent, namely the commemoration of Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem, began to overshadow the passion emphasis. The first reference to an actual procession with palms comes from 4th century Jerusalem. Although Jerusalem may not represent the origins of this particular celebration, the presence of holy places made the procession all the more popular and contributed to the growth in palm processions in Gaul and Spain throughout the medieval period. The participatory nature of the processions led to the full scale urban processions of the 8th century, characterized by the composition of the Palm Sunday hymn known in English as All Glory, Laud, and Honorby Theodulph of Orleans, and eventually to the liturgical dramas of the Middle Ages. 

In the Roman tradition, the remaining days of Lent, following Palm Sunday and leading to the culmination of Lent in the Easter triduum, focused on the passion of Christ as recounted in the remaining synoptic gospels of Mark and Luke (Matthew having been read exclusively on Palm Sunday). On Holy Thursday the last two rituals of Lent were celebrated: the consecration of the chrism, and the reconciling of those penitents who had undergone the last stages of public penance during Lent. The consecration of chrism, and originally the blessing of both the oil of the sick and of catechumens, was the prerogative of the bishop. The consecration of chrism came to be identified with Holy Thursday, undoubtedly because of the necessity of preparing chrism for use at the Easter sacraments. In Rome, the pope consecrated chrism during the one Mass at which he presided on Holy Thursday, namely the Mass of the Lord’s Supper. 

Contemporary Practice
The double focus of baptism and penance in the season of Lent was restored with the reforms of Vatican ii, particularly with the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (SC, 1963) and the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA, 1972). From the primary (and often solitary) focus on penance, the conciliar document reminds the church of the original baptismal character of Lent: “The two elements which are especially characteristic of Lent—the recalling of baptism or the preparation for it, and penance—should be given greater emphasis in the liturgy and in liturgical catechesis. It is by means of them that the Church prepares the faithful for the celebration of Easter …” (SC, 109). The constitution’s charge to make more use of the baptismal features of Lent, including those “of an earlier tradition” (SC, 109a), was brought to fruition with the promulgation of the final draft of the RCIA in 1988. “The sacraments of initiation are celebrated during the Easter Solemnities, and preparation for these sacraments is part of the distinctive character of Lent. Accordingly, the Rite of Election should normally take place on the first Sunday of Lent and the period of final preparation of the elect should coincide with the Lenten season. The plan arranged for the Lenten season will benefit the elect by reason of both its liturgical structure and the participation of the community” (RCIA, 126). 

The Readings for Lent
While Ash Wednesday recalls the penitential aspects of Lent, the structure and focus of the RCIA has had a profound effect on recalling the baptismal nature of Lent. The readings for the Sundays of Lent, like those of the entire liturgical year, are on a three year cycle, and the first of the three, Cycle A, restores the catechumenal readings associated with adult initiation in the early church. This cycle can be used every year in parishes which have an RCIA

The first Sunday of Lent in all three cycles uses the story of Jesus’ temptation in the desert from either Matthew, Mark, or Luke, to focus on the beginning of the journey to the resurrection. The accompanying Preface for Lent I strengthens this movement: “Each year you give us this joyful season when we prepare to celebrate the paschal mystery with mind and heart renewed.” The second Sunday also has the same gospel story in all three cycles, the transfiguration of Jesus, which points again to the glory of a life in Christ beyond the cross and death. The second Sunday of Lent also has its own Preface related to the gospel reading. 

Beginning with the third Sunday in Cycle A, the ancient baptismal pericopes from John dominate the liturgies for three weeks. On the third Sunday, the story of the meeting of Jesus with the Samaritan woman is centered on the “living water” which Jesus gives for eternal life. The story of the man born blind and healed by Jesus is the focus of the fourth Sunday, Cycle A, a baptismal story dependent on the early church understanding of baptism as enlightenment. The fifth Sunday uses the gospel of the raising of Lazarus, a reading with a rich historical background of its own and one that holds out to all Christians the ultimate goal of life with Christ after death. 

All three of these Sundays in Cycle A have their own proper Prefaces, the other two cycles continue to use the Preface of Lent I or II. Both Cycles B (2009) and C (2010) in these three Sundays present readings selected to speak to those already baptized and continuing to grow in their faith. Cycle B, particularly in the OT readings, retraces the covenant of God and God’s people through the new covenant in Christ Jesus. The gospel readings culminate on the fifth Sunday in the dying and rising of all Christians on the journey through life with the use of the gospel of John pericope on the grain of wheat which dies to bear fruit, reflecting both Christ’s passage from death to life and that of all Christians. Cycle C has a stronger focus on transforming faith and uses gospel stories in these three weeks which recount cycles of failure and ultimate victory through faith. The gospel reading for the fifth Sunday in Cycle C is the only one in this cycle taken from John; here the story of the adulterous woman who receives the mercy of God and begins again reflects the theme of victorious faith begun on the first Sunday of Lent with the story of Jesus’ victory over Satan. 

All three cycles move to the passion account on the sixth Sunday of Lent (properly called Passion Sunday) which begins Holy Week. The first part of the liturgy commemorates Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem, a commemoration retained in the liturgical reforms in three options: an actual procession with palms, a solemn entrance, or a simple entrance. The gospel of Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem is read from one of three synoptic accounts prior to the procession or entrance. The focus changes from the entry of Jesus to the passion of Jesus, however, with the prayers and readings of the eucharistic liturgy itself, moving toward the proclamation of the passion from one of the three synoptic accounts (the gospel of John being reserved for Good Friday). This last Sunday of Lent also has its own Preface for use in all three cycles which speaks of the efficacious dying and rising of Christ, tying this Sunday’s liturgy to the Easter triduum at the conclusion of Lent. 

The weekdays of Lent also continue the theme of movement towards Easter. The importance of the season is seen in the fact that each weekday has its own proper of the Mass. Beginning with the fourth week of Lent, the gospel of John is read in a semi-continuous manner which creates a coherent whole with the Sunday readings of Cycle A. 

Sections of the historical development are adapted from 

Lizette Larson-Miller 
The New Dictionary of Sacramental Worship, Peter E. Fink, ed. 
(Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2000), pp. 680-7