Lent is the church’s preparation for Easter. Lenting exercise takes after the example of our Lord Jesus Christ who fasted forty days and forty nights in the desert. He emphasized prayer and fasting as a means to master the evil one and grow to perfection. It is also a special time for penance sacrifice and good works as it is for prayer in preparation for the celebration of Easter.
It is, however, true that the number ‘forty’ had always had a spiritual significance regarding preparations in the biblical times. For example, on Mount Sinai, when Moses was preparing to receive the ten commandments, he stayed there with the Lord for Forty days and forty nights without eating food or drinking water, (Ex 34:28). Elijah walked for forty days and forty nights to Mount Horeb (another name for Sinai) (1 King 19:8). Most importantly, Jesus fasted and prayed for forty days and forty nights in the desert before He began His public ministry.
St. Cyril of Alexandria also noted the practices and duration of Lent, emphasizing the 40-day period of fasting in his series of “Festal Letters”. Also, Pope St. Leo preached that the faithful must fulfill with their fasts the Apostolic origins of Lent.
However, by the end of the fourth century, the forty-day period of Easter preparation known as Lent existed. Prayer and fasting constituted its primary spiritual exercises. Once the 40 days Lent were established, the next decision was how much fasting was to be done. For example, in Jerusalem, People fasted for 40 days, every day excluding Saturdays and Sundays, thereby making Lent last for eight weeks.
while in Rome and in the western part, people fasted for only six weeks. Eventually, the practice prevailed of fasting for six days a week over the course of six weeks, and Ash Wednesday was instituted to bring the number of fast days before Easter to 40.
The rules of fasting varied. Some areas of the Church abstained from all forms of meat and animal products while others made exceptions for food like fish.
The general rule was for a person to have one meal a day, in the evening or at 3 p.m.
Over time, it evolved. Eating fish was allowed and later, eating meat was allowed through the week except on Ash Wednesday and Friday. this modifications over the years have made our practices simple and easy with Ash Wednesday still marking the beginning of Lent, which lasts for forty days, not including Sundays.
Nevertheless, people are still encouraged to “give up something” for Lent as a sacrifice. Also, on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, the faithful fast (eating only one full meal a day and smaller snacks to keep up one’s strength) and abstain from meat.
Finally, Ash Wednesday is the beginning of this sacred time of Lent consecrated to penance, recollection, prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. It is required that we retire from the world into the “desert” with Jesus the Son of God who as our Saviour longs to share his victory with us. As Master, he will teach us how to subject our three enemies: the devil, the flesh, and the world and obey God the Father.