A Time for Everything: Lent: Part 2

Time, time time…

By the time I get around to finishing this series of articles on an Evangelical observance of Lent, the season will have passed. In Search of Lost Time. But in order to understand Lent, we will not merely need to find the time, we will have to delve back into the memory of the Church, to recall the times when Lent was observed differently and for different reasons. In this episode we will have much to do with history.

First of all, you’ve got to remember that for many years celebrations like Easter or Lent weren’t fixed in stone. They almost certainly don’t originate in the very earliest period of the Church. Different Churches around the Roman Empire disagreed about precisely when to celebrate Easter, and had very different ideas about when to fast and what their fasting should involve. The idea of celebrating Christmas comes along later still. Most scholars would agree that probably the earliest Church period (the time of the Apostles and the generations immediately afterward) celebrated Easter every week! Every Friday became a remembrance of Jesus death (marked by some sort of fast) and every Sunday was celebrated as a reminder of his Resurrection: the Lord’s Day (Actually, that’s basically what we still do with our Church meetings on a Sunday). Gradually these weekly remembrances were supplemented with a larger Church calendar

In some form, the practice of observing Lent was established by the time of the Council of Nicea (325AD). The fifth Canon (Rule) of Nicea reads:

“And let these synods be held, the one before Lent, (that the pure Gift may be offered to God after all bitterness has been put away), and let the second be held about autumn.”

(The Canon concerns the need for the churches to hold twice-yearly Synods to review appeals against unfair excommunication of Bishops, if only we had such a need!)

The word translated into English as  ‘Lent’ in the Nicene Canon is the Greek tessarakoste, i.e., ‘fortieth day’. The word appears to have been formed on analogy with pentekoste (Pentecost, i.e., ‘fiftieth day’). Around the time of the Council of Nicea it seems that churches around the Roman Empire were beginning to divide up the year into periods of time marked by reflection upon different events within the history of God’s redemption of his people. This might sound like a weird thing to us Digital-Moderns, but it certainly wasn’t strange in a society where time was marked out by the quality of events and activities rather than quantities. Time passed in the cycles of sowing and harvest. Years were counted against the lives and rules of Emperors (“in the third year of Caesar Augustus…”) . And all of these events correlated to religious activities: sacrifices, offerings, pilgrimages, fasts, feasts. That was how time passed, not primarily because the Earth sashayed around the solar system, or a metal arm rattled around a dial.

The Fifty Days after Resurrection Sunday (what we call Easter Sunday)  was known as ‘Paschal time’ or ‘Eastertime’. In traditional Churches you’ll still see the weeks after Easter counted out: 2nd Sunday after Easter, 3rd Sunday after Easter, right up until the 50th day after Easter: the Day of Pentecost (lit. fiftieth Day). This whole period was coming to be regarded by the  Church in the Nicene period as a time of celebration of Jesus’ resurrection and rule.

At the same time, a similar thing was happening with the period before Easter. These days, or weeks, were increasingly regarded as a special time of preparation for the celebration feast of Easter. Different churches in different parts of the Roman Empire observed different periods of preparation, so the reference to ‘Lent’ in the Nicene Canon doesn’t necessarily refer to a 40 day fast. But, clearly, people were taking some sort of pre-Easter time out to prepare.

One of the most famous participants at the Council of Nicea was the theologian Athanasius, a Bishop in the Egyptian city of Alexandria. Athanasius had a habit of writing a ‘Festal Letter’ to the ministers of the churches in his region each year, many of which have been preserved. We get a detailed description of his practice of Lent in his Sixth Festal Letter.

We begin the fast of forty days on the first day of the month Phamenoth (Feb. 25); and having prolonged it till the fifth of Pharmuthi (Mar. 31), suspending it upon the Sundays and the Saturdays preceding them, we then begin again on the holy days of Easter, on the sixth of Pharmuthi (Apr, 1), and cease on the eleventh of the same month (Apr. 6), late in the evening of the Saturday, whence dawns on us the holy Sunday, on the twelfth of Pharmuthi (Apr. 7), which extends its beams, with unobscured grace, to all the seven weeks of the holy Pentecost. Resting on that day, let us ever keep Easter joy in Christ Jesus our Lord, through Whom, to the Father, be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen. All the brethren who are with me salute you. Salute one another with a holy kiss.

Essentially, Athanasius is describing a 40 day fast (not including Saturdays and Sundays) for the period before Easter Sunday. Christians didn’t (and still don’t) fast on the Sundays of this period because they are all ‘mini-Easters’: days in which Jesus’ resurrection is celebrated. The fact that Athanasius has to spell out the details of how the Lenten period should be observed probably suggests that people were still trying to reach a consistent practice among different churches.

What is most significant about these Festal Letters, however, is not the details about dates, but Athanasius’ reasoning for why Christians should get involved in this practice. Whereas, much later medieval understandings of Lent revolved around the idea of ‘penance’, for Athanasius, Lent was about preparation, about ‘palate cleansing’ for the feast which was up and coming.

Coming to grips with penance and preparation, what these things mean, and what they have to do with Christian discipleship is at the heart of coming to an Evangelical understanding of Lent.  But that’s for another time, right now, here’s  Athanasius in full flight, it’s a beautiful thing:

The whole creation keeps a feast, my brethren, and everything that has breath praises the Lord, as the Psalmist [says], on account of the destruction of the enemies, and our salvation. And justly indeed; for if there is joy in heaven over one sinner who repents, what should there not be over the abolition of sin, and the resurrection of the dead? Oh what a feast and how great the gladness in heaven! how must all its hosts joy and exult, as they rejoice and watch in our assemblies, those that are held continually, and especially those at Easter? For they look on sinners while they repent; on those who have turned away their faces, when they become converted; on those who formerly persisted in lusts and excess, but who now humble themselves by fastings and temperance; and, finally, on the enemy who lies weakened, lifeless, bound hand and foot, so that we may mock at him; ‘Where is thy victory, O Death? where is thy sting, O Grave?’ Let us then sing unto the Lord a song of victory.

(Athanasius, ‘Sixth Festal Letter’ in Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers, edited by Philip Schaff, online at ccel.org)

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