Why do we call it “Lent?”
Technically, we should call it “40.”
That’s what this season before Holy Week and Easter was called in its earliest days: the Greek word was Tessarakoste, meaning “40th.”
While a Lent of 40 days-length is an ancient tradition for Christians, this pattern of 40 days of preparation and penance did not develop immediately in the early church. In fact, it seems that the length of preparation time before Easter did not settle into a Lenten 40-days for about three centuries. The “Catholic Encyclopedia” notes that, “we find, in the early years of the fourth century, the first mention of the term “Tessarakoste.”
Easter each Sunday
What the first Christians did from the beginning was to approach each Sunday as a celebration of Easter. (To this day, each Sunday is still viewed as a celebration of the Easter triumph.) That meant that, for early Christians, each day of the week was considered a preparation time for the Sunday celebration.
When something similar to our Lenten preparation season did develop, it took place in the days immediately prior to the annual Easter celebration in spring. So the second bishop of Lyon (France), St. Irenaeus, was able to write about a 40-hour fast starting on what would now be called Good Friday. Tradition says that 40 hours were honored because it was believed that Jesus lay in the tomb for 40 hours. (This tradition remains alive in our 40 hours’ devotion.)
Eventually, starting in the fourth century in Europe, the celebration date for Christmas was set on Dec. 25. Prior to that, Christ’s Nativity was honored on Jan. 6 — as it still is in the churches of the East — as part of the Epiphany (“the Manifestation of Christ”) celebration.
40 days of Christmas
In Europe, Christmas soon became a 40-day season (Christmastide) lasting until Feb. 2 and the celebration of the Presentation of the Lord in the Temple. It’s interesting to note that Egeria, a fourth-century pilgrim to Jerusalem, recorded that there was a “Quadragesimæ de Epiphania” (30 days of Epiphany) celebrated there as well.
Back to the Greek word Tessarakoste. As use of the Greek language gave way to Latin for the liturgy, the Greek word for “40th” gave way to the Latin word for “40th”: Quadragesima (meaning “the 40 days”). It seems that counting Quadragesima developed logically, going backwards from Easter, just as the Easter celebration of 50 days were counted forward from Easter to the coming of the Holy Spirit. (“Pentecost” is the Greek word for “50th,” just as Tessarakoste means “40th.”)
The first Sunday of Lent became known as Quadragesima Sunday. The readings for that Sunday speak of Christ’s 40 days in the desert and that was how the church’s penitential season of Lent came to be viewed, as a commemoration of and participation in Jesus’ 40 days in the desert after his baptism. Just as Jesus fasted, so did the church. Just as Jesus prayed, so did the church.
However, it was not for a few more centuries that the word “Lent” surfaced and took on the special meaning that relates it to the Christian season. “Lent” comes to us from an Anglo-Saxon word meaning “springtime” (lencten) and both are related to the German word “lenz” meaning “spring.” The root word for lenz is the same as that for the word “long” (lang). Etymologists feel there is a link between this word and the fact that springtime is when the days grow longer in the Northern Hemisphere.
The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) notes that, by the 11th century, the word “Lent” “had taken on the Christian usage it has today” and its use as a generic term for “spring” was disappearing. The dictionary adds that “Lenten” is “the earliest English word currently recorded in the OED for the season between winter and summer.”
So the development of what we now call “Lent” started with Easter, worked its way forward to Pentecost, and then backward to Christmas. Likewise, it spread — as did the Gospel — outward from Jerusalem to Greece in the East and to England in the West. In the process, “the 40 days” added the slow, patient process of waiting for the coming of spring to the original idea of celebrating the new life brought to us at Easter.
Sources: Encyclopedia Britannica; Oxford English Dictionary; biblestudy.org; Catholic Encyclopedia; and etymonline.com