Q. Has the Church always observed Lent? When did it begin?
A. From the first centuries of the Church, it was the custom of Christians to fast in preparation for Easter. In some places, the fast lasted for one day, or two, or for a week. In places, the fast lasted for 40 hours. And in some places, the Church engaged in a period of fasting and penance for the 40 days before Easter – to remember the 40 days Christ fasted, and the 40 years Israel wandered in the desert.
After the Council of Nicea, in 325 AD, the observation of 40 penitential days before Easter was fixed in the Church’s customs and calendar. By the end of the fourth century, Lent was observed across the Christian world as a 40-day period of fasting and prayer before Easter.
Across the centuries, the customs and observations of Lent have varied, at different times, and in different cultures. Lent is meant to evoke the memory of our baptism, which gives us the grace of salvation, and to call us to penance, to confession of sin and penitential acts of mortification. As we prepare for Easter this year, we should remember the centuries of Catholics who have fasted in Lent, and pray for their salvation, as we remember that each one of us will one day be judged by Christ the King.
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