Origins of the Lenten Season

Dustin White

Each year, millions throughout the world observe Lent as a time of fasting and repentance. For many others, it signifies the time of the year in which their favorite fish items become available at a variety of restaurants. Regardless of the situation, Lent is a major event, with a far reaching impact. Here is a look back at the observance.

When did Lent first begin?
As with many historic events, it is difficult to put an exact beginning on the observance of Lent. As early as the second century, the church father Irenaus of Lyons (c.130-c.200) had made mention of a similar church season; however, it only last a few days compared to the 40 days Lent lasts today. 

It was not until after the Council of Nicaea that a 40 day Lenten season appeared. What occurred during those intervening years is not fully certain, and highly debated by scholars. What is clear is that by the fourth century, Lent had started taking form, even though it was observed in different fashions based on location. 

When did Ash Wednesday begin?
While Lent had been celebrated for a few centuries, it was not until the seventh century that Ash Wednesday got its name. Previously, Lent had begun on a Sunday, but Gregory the Great (c.540-604) made the decision to move the start date to Wednesday. 

The reason for the move was to secure exactly 40 days for Lent. Sundays were not counted as they were considered feast days. 

Gregory also began the practice that is still associated with this day. As an individual would enter the church, Gregory would mark their foreheads with ash, to remind them of their repentance and mortality. 

Why fish? 
One question many have about Lent is why can fish still be eaten? What is special about fish that it is singled out?

A simple answer is that technically, what is ruled out is the flesh of warm-blooded animals. If one wanted, they could also eat reptiles, but in the west, that is something that did not catch on. 

While the English word for meat includes fish, the Latin word did not. The problem that one sees then is due to a translation problem. 

A secondary reason why fish became a popular exemption was for political reasons. 

When Henry VIII took power in 1509, fish was the dominant food on the menu for most of the year. After Henry broke off from the Catholic Church, eating fish became political. 

This act caused a serious strain on the fishing community, so much so that Henry’s son, Edward VI, who took power in 1547, reinstated the eating of fish on fast days by law. The result was that fishing once again become influential in global economics.

So while the exact origins of Lent are murky, and the observance has been somewhat fluid, it still has a major effect on us, if for no other reason than making the fish industry a bit more influential.