The Lenten Journey: The Origin of Lent and the Humility of Roots
Roots are, historically, perhaps the most humble of God’s creations on earth. They require neither acknowledgment nor praise. Their reward is reaped when the living stand upon them and reach for the fruit the roots made possible. Such is the story of Lent.
The etymology of the word Lent enjoys an easy consensus among scholars. As The Lenten Triodion poetically states, “Lent signifies not winter but spring, not darkness but light, not death but renewed vitality.”(i)
According to Fr. William P. Saunders, the Anglo-Saxon word lectentid “literally means not only ‘springtide’ but also was the word for ‘March,’ the month in which the majority of Lent falls.” (ii) In Greek, Lent is tessarakosti, and in Latin, quadragesima, both of which emphasize the number forty, a number rich in biblical significance.
In origin, however, Lent’s history is far less obvious. Fifty years ago, the history of Lent could have been penned with greater certainty and with greater error. Scholars now affirm that we simply know less than we used to about Lent. Catholic scholar Nicholas V. Russo explains that, “today the history of Lent’s origins is far less certain because many of the suppositions upon which the standard theory rested have been cast into doubt.” (iii)
For centuries, many scholars supported the backwards extension theory. Based upon the assumption that key early mentions of fasting related to baptismal preparation and that the primary season for such baptisms was Easter, this theory held that Lent gradually grew in length from a fast mirroring Jesus’ time in the grave to a fast mirroring Jesus’ time in the desert.
However, more recent research confirms that though ancient mentions of fasting were most often associated with baptism, such baptisms were not always associated with Easter. In short, the bridge is now out between ancient mentions of fasting and Resurrection Sunday.
Of the few current theories, I am most drawn—both in mind and heart—to the possibility that Lent emerged from the fusion of a separate baptismal preparation for initiates and the sacred honoring of Resurrection morning. Which returns us the humility of roots.
Beginnings are mysterious things: part breath, part hope, part fumble, and part grace. All of which is livable, and even beautiful, because the spiritual weight of this particular heirloom rests not in its satisfyingly discernible beginnings, but in the warmth of soul it still offers today. As Orthodox Reverend Alexander Schmemann stated so insightfully,
[T]he basic meaning of Lent remained the same. For even though we are baptized, what we constantly lose and betray is precisely that which we received at Baptism. Therefore, Easter is our return every year to our own Baptism, whereas Lent is our preparation for that return—the slow and sustained effort to perform, at the end, our own ‘passage’ or ‘pascha’ into the new life in Christ. (iv)
Taken from 40 Days of Decrease: A Different Kind of Hunger. A Different Kind of Fast by Alicia Britt Chole Copyright © 2015 by Alicia Britt Chole. Used by permission of Thomas Nelson.
Chole received her DMin in Leadership and Spiritual Formation at GFES. Alicia is an author, speaker, and the founding director of leadershipii.com, a soul-care non-profit for leaders. Her newest book guides readers in fasting apathy, injustice, regrets, etc. for the love of God. Learn more about Alicia at aliciachole.com and 40fasts.com.
i Mother Maria and Diokleia Kallistos, The Lenten Triodion (South Canaan, PA: Saint Tikhon’s Seminary Press), 23.
ii William P. Saunders, “The Origins of Lent,” Catholic Herald, March 2, 2006.
iii Nicholas V. Russo, “The Early History of Lent,” Lent Library (Waco, TX: The Center for Christian Ethics at Baylor University, 2013), 19, http:/www.baylor .edu/content/services/document.php/193181.pdf.
iv Alexander Schmemann, Great Lent, rev. ed. (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1974), 14.
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