The origins of Lent go back to the second century and can be traced to the fasts undertaken by candidates for Baptism at Easter. The ancient pre-Easter fast was only a couple days. St. Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, gives the first reference to the forty day fast in Pastoral Epistles he wrote on preparation for Easter. The Roman Church established the current six week period of Lent by the end of the fourth century. As the tradition of Easter Baptisms fell into disuse, the emphasis of the forty-day fast developed into a forty-day penitential season.
Biblical Precedent for Lent:
According to the Synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke; Jesus Christ spent 40 days fasting in the desert, where he endured temptation by Satan. Lent mirrors this 40 days of fasting as preparation for Easter. Sundays are days of feasting since every Sunday is a celebration of Christ’s Resurrection. They do not “count” in the calculation of the forty-day period, so the Lenten period of fasting began on a Wednesday. Accordingly, Christians fasted from Monday to Saturday (6 days) during 6 weeks and from Wednesday to Saturday (4 days) in the preceding week, thus making up the number of 40 days.
Ash Wednesday as the first day of Lent developed by the sixth century in an effort to keep Lent a forty-day period. It occurs 46 days (as before; 40 fasting days and 6 Sundays, which are not days of fast, are thus excluded) before Easter.
The name “Ash Wednesday” developed from rites practiced by the Church in France during the Middle Ages. Penitents seeking restoration to Holy Communion at Easter presented themselves at the Church the First Day of Lent. They were garbed on sackcloth and they cast the ashes of palms that had been blessed the preceding Palm Sunday upon their heads. The Church adopted this tradition and began the practice of marking the foreheads of all Christians on Ash Wednesday as a symbol of the penitential character of the Lenten season.
The ashes used on Ash Wednesday are made from the blessed palms used in the Palm Sunday celebration of the previous year. The ashes are christened with Holy Water and are scented by exposure to incense. The ashes were so blessed at the 7:30AM service. While the ashes symbolize penance and contrition, they are also a reminder that God is gracious and merciful to those who call on Him with repentant hearts. His Divine mercy is of utmost importance during the season of Lent. During Lent, we are called to seek God’s mercy during the entire season with reflection, prayer and penance.
May you be blessed with a Holy Lenten Season.