The season of Lent as preparation for Easter began in the third century, with St. Iranaeus; it was probably established as a fast of a day or more in local churches. The word “Lent” that we use is from the Anglo-Saxon word for spring. The churches kept Lent as a time of increased prayer and scripture reading. it was the last phase of catechism for those wishing to be baptized at Easter.
Lent is now the forty days before Easter, or Pascha. In the eastern churches Lent ends with the Vigil of Pascha, which starts at midnight on the Saturday preceding Easter, the end of Holy Week. While Lent is a time of fasting, Holy Week is a time of concentrated preparation for Easter, with special prayer services and scripture readings.
Must a Christian fast before Easter? Traditionally, and by church law or canon, the answer is yes. Most Protestants do not keep the fast, however, reflecting the scriptural passage that the guests do not fast while the bridegroom is with them. Most of the “Jerusalem” or high churches would disagree, saying that Jesus meant only while He was physically on earth were the disciples exempt from fasting.
Certainly, fasting from foods was an expectation in the apostolic church at the proper seasons, or for reasons of prayer. The forty days of Lent were not established until the fourth century, and may have arisen from a misreading of the historian Eusebius, who was commenting on a forty hour fast. Nonetheless, the forty day fast became established, to remember the forty day fast of Jesus in the wilderness.
Christians are never expected to abstain from all nourishment for extended periods of time, and water is allowed in all periods of fasting or abstention.
In our century, fasting from food is less common; some churches interpret or allow fasting from activities if that is more practical. Families might abstain from watching television or going to movies. (In centuries past, the theatres were closed in Lent.) Others may use the time of Lent to give up a bad habit such as smoking or gambling. Any fast or abstention must be accomplished with prayer, scripture and the support of the church community. One should at least confide in one’s minister or priest as to the form of abstention one wishes to undertake.
Fasting is not atonement for our sins; it is discipline so that we may strnegthen our souls, bodies, minds and spirits against the onslaught of evil and temptation. it is for our benefit, not God’s.
Please let me know if you need support and prayers in your Lenten journey. I will keep confidentiality if you request.
Enjoy a blessed Lent! Christ is coming!