A late second-century bishop, Irenaeus of Lyon, France, recounted that some but not all Christians practiced complete abstention from all food from the time of Jesus’ death at 3.00pm. on Good Friday until sunrise at Easter.
Irenaeus also mentioned that other Christians fasted for a longer time, but there was no requirement for a fast, brief or long. No other second-century text mentions a pre-Easter fast.
In the third century, Bishop Dionysius of Alexandria spoke of a weeklong fast before Easter. Details may be spare, but clearly some kind of pre-Easter fast was developing.
But so was another type of fast, the pre-baptismal one (at this time baptism was mainly administered to adults).
The church administered baptism only at certain times of the year such as Easter or Epiphany, on the latter date partly because Christians believed that to be the anniversary of Jesus’ baptism.
But Easter emerged as the preferred time by the fourth century, mainly because baptism involved death-and-rebirth imagery, closely matching the Resurrection.
Baptizands in white robes entered the church on the day Christ entered into glory. The pre-baptismal fast merged with the incipient pre-Easter fast not just chronologically but symbolically.
Fourth-century bishops believed that all believers should join the baptizands in fasting before Easter, so this became a major spiritual exercise of the early church.
When the fast became universal, the question arose: For how long?
Ancient practices varied: in Rome, three weeks of fasting but excluding Saturdays and Sundays; in Greece and Egypt six weeks, but we do not know about Saturdays or Sundays; in Jerusalem, a full eight weeks but not including weekends, so the total number of days was 40.
At the first ecumenical council at Nicaea in 325, the bishops worked to standardize the practice. They spoke of the 40-day fast as an established custom, although scholars are not sure why.
By 365, the local church of Laodicea (modern Turkey) made the 40-day fast obligatory, and others quickly followed.
Christian theologians applauded this practice, since it not only reflected Jesus’ 40-day fast in the desert but also those of Moses (Ex 34:28) and Elijah (1 Kgs 19:8), the two figures who appeared with Jesus at the transfiguration, thus giving the fast a deep-rooted biblical foundation.
But should the 40 days include Saturdays and Sundays?
Traditions differed, especially in the East. But in the West, Rome led the way by absolving people from the fast only on Sundays.
And on what day should the fast begin?
Some churches relied upon local traditions and symbolic values, but most did it the easy way – arithmetic. Lent ended on Holy Saturday. Using that as the 40th day and excluding Sundays, the Roman church measured back six weeks (36 days) and then went back four more days so that the pre-Easter fast, our Lent, began on a Wednesday, the still-prevailing custom.
So this was Ash Wednesday?
No. Not until the seventh century did French churches sprinkle ashes on the heads of penitents during Lent; in Germany in the 10th century this sprinkling occurred on the Wednesday that began the fast.
In 1091 Pope Urban II made the imposition of ashes on that day a universal practice, thus creating Ash Wednesday.
As for the word "Lent", it was first used in England in the ninth century. -By John F. Kelly
(Kelly chairs the Department of Religious Studies at John Carroll University in Cleveland, Ohio.)