Why Did We Start Observing Lent?

Christ Lent

Lent began in the apostolic era and was universal in the ancient church. For this reason, Lent is observed by the various Presbyterian, Methodist, Lutheran, and Anglican churches, by Roman Catholics, and by Eastern Orthodox Churches. But it is easier to explain who stopped observe it and why.

In the 16th century, many of the Anabaptists discarded all Christian holy days, on the theory that they were Roman innovations. That was their best information at the time, but today we know that they were wrong. In the late nineteenth century, ancient Christian documents came to light. The Didache from the first century, the Apostolic Constitutions from the third century, and the diaries of Egeria of the fourth century; all which give evidence of the Christian calendar and holy days. The Didache and the Apostolic Constitutions were written in the east, which denies it ever recognized the institution of the papacy. Egeria was a Spanish nun, but her writings also describe practices in the east. All of these documents came to light 300 years after it was too late for the groups who had already discarded Christian holy days.

In many cases, however, Rome was the last place to observe the Holy days. For example, the idea of moving All Saints Day to November 1 did not reach Rome until 700 years after it originated in England, and the idea of celebrating Holy Week as Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, and Good Friday, was quite elaborate in Jerusalem before the early fourth century but did not spread to Rome until the 11th century.

Advent began in medieval Gaul and spread to Rome from there. Lent, on the other hand, appears to have originated in the apostolic age. The Apostolic Constitutions attribute the observance of Lent to an apostolic commandment. We can’t verify that, but we also can’t disprove it. The Anabaptists gave rise to or influenced the Amish, the Mennonites, the Baptists, and the Plymouth Brethren. The Puritans, who were Calvinists, had similar views on worship, which is why they made Christmas illegal in Massachusetts at one time. (Some Mennonites, however, never rejected the Christian holy days.)

In the 19th century, the established denominations were slow to spread west of the Appalachians, which was the frontier at the time. The area was thinly populated and there were very few seminary-trained clergy. The lay people had been converted at camp meetings without any church background. They were influenced by the groups that had rejected Christian holy days, but frontier conditions were not conducive to structured liturgical worship anyway. They weren’t aware of the Christian holy days, and they didn’t have the equipment, the facilities, the education, the authorization, or the training to conduct liturgical worship. Therefore most of the religious groups that were formed in the United States in the 19th century do not have a custom of observing Lent. This environment had some influence on individual congregations in denominations that have historically observed the Christian holy days-so you will occasionally find a Methodist church that does not observe Lent.

Gradually, the holy days have returned to the churches that had discarded them. The restoration quickly began with Easter. Christmas followed in the 19th century, and Advent and Holy Week became widespread among them in the 20th century. Lent is mounting a come-back in the 21st century.

And that is why Lent is back.

7 thoughts on “Why Did We Start Observing Lent?”

  1. Greetings;
    In your column “Why did we start observing Lent” you state, “In the 16th century many of the Anabaptists discarded all Christian holy days on the theory that they were Roman innovations.”
    I’m not sure that’s correct. As a Mennonite, when I was growing up and learning in church about the history of the Anabaptists, I was taught, and understood that the reason my spiritual ancestors discarded the holy days celebrated by others is because many people, including other church leaders, were only behaving in a holy and Christian manner on those days; on other days they were living sinful lives and their behavior and business practices were not distinguishable from the lives and behavior of sinners. The same was true for holy places. Anabaptists believed and still believe that the church is the people, not a building or a cathedral. As people who had to worship in secret in caves or other disguished settings, the location itself was not imnportant, but the people who made up the church. Even today that emphasis on the church being the people, not the building is evident at the buildings where some congregations meet which are called “meeting houses,” not churches.
    The understanding that Mennonites and other Anabaptists had is that there is proper behavior for Christians such as honesty, unselfishness, peacemaking, etc. and God expects his followers to faithfully follow those beliefs and practices every day of the year. “Right living” is not limited to holy days or holy buildings, but the way Christians are to live all the time. Verses like “In all thy ways acknowledge him and he shall direct your path,” and “pray without ceasing,” reinforce those beliefs. Prayer is for each day and every situation and seeking God’s direction is for “all” our ways, not just for a formal worship setting.

    I’m interested in hearing more from you about this topic. Thank you.

    Leonard Nolt

  2. Scriptural support for the practice of Lent:-

    40 days Moses spent fasting on Mt. Sinai….
    40 days Elijah fasted while walking to Mt.Horeb(1 Kgs. 19:8)…..
    40 days of Jesus’ fasting in the desert…..

    These make pretty much Scriptural support for 40 days of lent.

  3. Thank you – is there any instruction in the Bible for believers to now practice the abstention of food or drink for 40 days, like the examples cited?

  4. The early Christians associated fasting with Penitence and Purification.(See Mathew 6:16; Mark 9:29). During the first two centuries of its existance, the Christian Church established fasting as a voluntary preparation for receiving the sacraments of Holy Communion and Baptism and for the ordination of priests.Later these fasts became obligatory, as did others subsequently added.

    Hey, I think there is no particular instruction in the Bible for believers to now practice the abstention of food or drink for 40 days. But its clear that our Lord Jesus did this and we are Christians because we follow Christ. So is there any need to search the Bible just for the instruction? I dont think so.

  5. I strongly believe that Lent can bring spiritual awareness and deep growth in the indivudual christian life as he or she examine and make reflections daily. Lent provides an opportunity to stop and think which is needed since sometimes we get caught up in the world/fleshy life. Jesus fasted and we should likewise follow His example of the period in the wilderness not for ritual purposes but rather for renewal in our own life. It should not be viewed as a catholic or other denominational practice but simply as spiritual and how meaningful we as Mennonites can comprehend Jesus’ example on earth.

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