Lent, observed by most Christians, began February 13 — Ash Wednesday.
Lent is defined as the 40 weekdays from Ash Wednesday until Easter Eve (Holy Saturday). These 40 days don’t include Sundays and are traditionally a time of fasting and penitence. Some Eastern churches observe more than 40 days of Lent.
The word “Lent” is Teutonic. It entered Old English as laenan (lengthen) and referred to the fact that the days lengthen in spring. By the time of Middle English, laenan had become lent.
The ecclesiastical meaning of Lent is found only in English. Other Germanic languages strictly connect the word to the idea of spring. For example, the German der Lenz, means “spring” or, figuratively, “the prime of life.”
Even ecclesiastically, this word isn’t ancient. It’s been used in its religious sense only since 1553.
Elsewhere, the term for “Lent” usually evokes the idea of “40.” Thus, the French for Lent is le Carême. From the Old French caresme, the word arises from the Vulgar Latin quaresima (forty).
In Spanish, Lent is known as Cuaresma and the Spanish for “forty” is cuarenta.
Italian is similar. Lent is quaresima. Forty is quaranta.
German gets away from the notion of “forty.” Germans call Lent, die Fastenzeit (time of fasting).
Lent didn’t always last 40 days. Much theological discussion ensued before that timespan was finally imposed after the reign of Gregory the Great (590-604).
And why did it become a 40-day period?
The Catholic Encyclopedia points to several Biblical periods involving 40. For example, Jesus was entombed for 40 hours. As well, He spent 40 days in the wilderness following His baptism and preceding His ministry. During those 40 days, He fasted.
Both David and Solomon reigned for 40 years. Moses spent 40 days on Mt. Sinai while he transcribed the Ten Commandments onto stone.
Periods of 40 days or 40 years, as mentioned in the Bible, seem related to testing. Thus, Noah was tested for 40 days and nights during the Great Flood.
Those who chronicled Biblical events couldn’t possibly have known the precise number of years it took Moses to lead the Israelites to the Promised Land, but we’re told it was 40 years. “Forty” is a nice round number that designates a long time.
Forty’s repeated occurrence in Holy Scripture probably influenced the Church when a Lenten period was decided.
Still, it’s important to understand that Lent is neither Biblical nor Apostolic in origin. It is, however, an early Christian idea. St. Irenaeus, in a letter to Pope Victor I, about 190 AD, speaks of a controversy regarding the length of an Easter Fast. So, as early as the second century, pre-Easter fasting was customary.
Let’s end with a bit of Lenten trivia.
Pretzels were invented as a Lenten treat when a medieval monk got creative. Back then, eggs, milk, lard, and butter were forbidden during Lent. The monk twisted strips of unleavened dough into shapes resembling people with arms crossed during prayer. He thought children would enjoy then and he named them pretiola, which is Latin for “little reward.”