From The Good of Giving Up
Where did Lent come from? How did it become recognized as the forty-day period of prayer, fasting, and generosity leading up to Easter? And when we say, “Lent began as a practice of the ancient church,” what does that even mean?
To answer these questions, I invite you to picture yourself in a thorny pastoral situation. Imagine the Lord saw fit to answer your prayers for the unchurched, and revival broke out in your region of the Roman Empire. Your church is deluged with new converts, and the nets of your ministry are breaking from the surplus of fish reeled in by the gospel. People with broken pasts and no background in Christianity come readily to be filled with God’s love in Christ. The poor and wealthy, young and old – people representing all the cultures of your region – are desperate to encounter Jesus and join his family.
It’s the beautiful mess for which you’ve fasted and prayed. Now it’s up to you to shepherd these sheep.
To complicate matters, imagine that Christianity is outlawed and branded as a public menace. State-controlled propaganda blames Christians for the Empire’s various trials, and every weapon of the state and cultural elite is aimed at eradicating the worship of Jesus Christ. You meet secretly late at night or early in the morning, yet this leads the local officials to accuse you of conspiracy. Church leaders are often summoned and interrogated, sometimes tortured or even fed to beasts. Survivors sustain trauma, and so do you, since there is a price on your head. People crack under the pressure and renounce Christ for fear of losing family members, limbs, or their homes.
You have tough questions to answer, and the stakes for answering rightly could not be higher. For instance, who do you baptize and admit into your fellowship? A few of the “spiritual seekers” are likely state informants. How, then, do you discern one from the other? Others are hyped from their conversion but are ill-prepared for a life of cross-bearing. How do you bridge the gap?
Moreover, how do you maintain the integrity of the Christian faith while welcoming so many pagan converts? The church isn’t growing incrementally; it’s multiplying faster than you can keep track. And rival teachers are wooing the spiritually hungry with heretical teachings. You need a process of discipleship that is dynamic enough for the situation – and quick.
One more thing: Many who wavered under threat of torture want to be admitted back into fellowship. Others have brought scandal on themselves by committing murder or adultery, and they also want to be publicly forgiven. Though such people have not made unreasonable requests, they have broken faith with the family of God. Restoration should not happen without some kind or process.
How do you respond to these needs?
Binding Ourselves to Christ
The pastor-theologians of the church faces conditions like these in the first few centuries after Jesus’s life and passion. And this is the environment out of which the practice of Lent emerged. Early church leaders called their people to devote themselves to a regular season of fasting, prayer, and almsgiving to form themselves as more mature Christians. This season later became known as Lent, but in the meantime it was simply a gentle harness that yoked the fledgling church to Jesus Christ.
Fasting is a willing abstention from eating food, and some drinks, to make space in our souls to feast on Jesus. In short, fasting is “hunger for God, concretized.” For many people, this is the most painful and powerful part of Lent.
Prayer is participating in the life of God, talking with and listening to him, whether in solitude or communal worship. Christians pray using the scriptures, especially the psalms. In Lent, our prayers take on a tone of repentance and contrition.
Almsgiving is a direct participation in God’s generosity as we give away our resources in love to our neighbor.
When the Christian church weaves fasting, prayer, and almsgiving together over a period of several weeks, individuals, families, and communities are impacted powerfully. These practices strengthened the ancient church in at least four areas.
Spiritual growth. Seasons of prayer and fasting allowed our spiritual forebears to participate in their union with Jesus, who himself fasted as he sought refuge in his Father’s love, (Matthew 4:2). Jesus assumed that his followers would fast after he returned to the Father: “The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast,” (Matthew 9:15). Prayer and fasting were practical ways for the early church to receive Jesus’s strength in their weakness.
Discipleship. Pagan converts to Jesus needed to cultivate new habits to support their walk with Christ. Fasting, prayer, and generosity over a period of time promoted spiritual reformation. Along the way, they received pastoral support in the form of prayer, fellowship, confession, and Bible teaching. In addition to forming new converts, this process helped to weed out informants.
Generosity. The early church took on responsibility for those marginalized by the Roman Empire, including abandoned babies, widows, lepers, and victims of plague. The practice of generosity, or almsgiving, made this sustainable. And when the early Christians fasted from food, they had more resources to give away.
Discernment. After persecution began to wane, many people who renounced Christ and betrayed their friends and family sought reentry into the church. Periods of fasting and prayer were integral to determining how and when to welcome apostates back into fellowship. Requiring the lapsed to fast, pray, and give generously helped to weed out the insincere.
In short, Lenten practices were a loving and pastoral response to the needs of a congregation. And they still are, provided that we practice them in the right spirit.
Enrolling in Christ’s School
But how did formal, prolonged practices that remind us of Lent become the season of Lent leading up to Easter?
The historical development of Lent is uneven and messy. For three hundred years after Christ, different churches around the world took varying approaches to extended seasons of prayer, fasting, and generosity. Given the pace of growth and the heat of persecution, this is not surprising.
I am writing this chapter in the month of June, and my kids are still in school for another week. Chicago public schools usually begin class after Labor Day and end later in June, which offers both benefits and drawbacks. While my kids are finishing the school year, their cousins in Alaska, Texas, and Ohio are already enjoying summer break. But at the end of the day, my kids are learning the same subjects as their cousins. Yes, there are variations in the calendar, teaching styles, and local customs, but all the cousins are learning how to read, perform math equations, and dissect frogs.
As the early church wrestled with how to make disciples, they developed what we might consider “Schools of Lent.” They varied somewhat in timing and style, but they all had the same essential curriculum of Christ-centered prayer, fasting, and generosity. These church leaders would later develop universal standards that would stand the test of time. Three “Schools of Lent” were most prominent during the first three hundred years of the church’s life.
An intense baptism class. If you wanted to become a Christian under Roman persecution, you could enroll in a three-year process known as the “catechumenate,” a full-immersion experience that taught the spiritually curious how to live, think, and worship as Christians before they were baptized and admitted into the complete fellowship of the church. This often involved putting aside concubines, quitting professions that involved idolatry or injustice, and making restitution with people against whom one had sinned against by stealing, cheating, or deceiving. Those who had denied Christ in word or deed and wanted to rejoin the church could also enter the catechumenate. During the three years, candidates studied the Bible, attended worship services regularly, and received moral and theological instruction from their pastor. Once they had shunned their pagan ways and embraced the ways of Jesus, they were allowed to register for baptism. At that point, things got even more intense. Candidates and their sponsors – a more mature Christian who walked with them through the catechumenate process – would enter a three-week period of fasting and prayer. The fasting requirements of the catechumenate in part formed the basis of the Lenten fast in later centuries: one daily meal of vegetables. During the three-week fast, each candidate was interviewed, prayed over, and expected to memorize key doctrines of the Christian faith before they were baptized. In short, the catechumenate helped early Christians break old, sinful habits, reorder their loves, and conform their daily lives to the ways of Christ.
The Easter Fast. A few short years after Jesus’s passion, the earliest Christians began to fast and pray to remember Jesus’s death and celebrate his resurrection. As early as the first century, baptismal candidates and their sponsors fasted the day before Easter. By the late second century, Christians fasted for forty hours, going without food and drink between the afternoon of Good Friday and the morning of Easter. By the third century, Christians fasted throughout Holy Week, and by the fourth century the Easter fast was extended to forty days.
The Epiphany Fast. Whereas early Christians in North Africa and Rome fasted before their baptisms, those in Syria, Armenia, and Egypt practiced a forty-day fast after their baptisms. They sought to model Christ, who received his baptism and then spent forty days fasting in the desert. Epiphany is the season of the church calendar beginning in mid-January and celebrates the revelation of Christ’s glory in his incarnation. Eastern Christians were enamored with Christ’s glory and wanted to partake in him, so they were baptized during Epiphany and then fasted after receiving the sacrament.
While specific practices of each “School of Lent” were slightly different, they all shared the same rich gospel curriculum of humble repentance, spiritual renewal, and holy preparation for the mission of the church in the world. The early Christians were learning how to put their besetting sins to death (“mortification”) and to experience new life in union with Christ (“vivification”).
In the fourth century, the Roman Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, and persecution of Christians eased considerably. This meant that Christian leaders could gather in safety, inform each other about the practices of their church, and solidify their teachings. In 325, a diverse gathering of church leaders from around the world convened in Nicaea (in what is now modern Turkey) to decide on matters relating to theology and practice.
At this council, the church leaders decided that they all would practice Lent – they called it Quadragesima, meaning “fortieth” in Latin. They took the three overlapping fasts and turned them into one universal season leading up to the Easter feast. Yes, baptismal candidates would still fast, taking one simple meal in the evening, but now the whole church – every person in every region – was invited to join them. Lent took the best parts of the catechumenate fast, the Easter Fast, and the Epiphany Fast and combined them into a universal, forty-day period that finds its culmination on Easter Sunday.
One of my friends who loves Jesus but is skeptical of Lent once asked me, “If Lent and Easter are so wonderful, why just celebrate them once a year?” This is a great question, and history shows that Christians in Rome insisted that every Friday is a “little Lent” and that every Sunday is a “little Easter.” As such, Sundays are for feasting and rejoicing in Christ, not fasting. So in 487, the church excluded Sundays from the forty days of Lent. That’s why Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, to account for all forty days.
Even though Lent became a standard season for the Christian church in the fourth century, it has always been flexible enough to adjust to the local culture and pastoral needs of the people. Fasting, prayer, and generosity are woven together differently for Christians in different parts of the world. Even in my own life, Lent is never quite the same each time I practice it.
But the pastoral vision for this season remains unchanged: Lent is a school that trains people to live as Christians. It is so effective at forming us into the likeness of Christ that we continue it to this day.