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CHAPTER THE FIRST.
THE HISTORY OF LENT.
THE Forty Days' Fast, which we call Lent, is the Church's preparation for Easter, and was instituted at the very commencement of Christianity. Our Blessed Lord himself sanctioned it by his fasting forty days and forty nights in the desert; and though he would not impose it on the world by an express commandment, (which, then, could not have been open to the power of dispensation,) yet he showed plainly enough by his own example, that Fasting, which God had so frequently ordered in the Old Law, was to be also practised by the Children of the New.
The Disciples of St. John the Baptist came, one day, to Jesus, and said to him: Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but thy Disciples do not fast? And Jesus said to them: Can the children of the bridegroom mourn, as long as the bridegroom is with them? But the days will come, when the bridegroom shall be taken away from them, and then they shall fast.2
Hence, we find it mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles, how the Disciples of our Lord, after the
1 In most languages, the name given to this Fast expresses the number of the days, Forty. But our word Lent signifies the Spring-Fast; for Lenten- Tide, in the ancient English-Saxon language, was the Season of Spring. [Tr.]
2 St. Matth. ix. 14, 15.
Foundation of the Church, applied themselves to Fasting. In their Epistles, also, they recommended it to the Faithful. Nor could it be otherwise. Though the divine mysteries, whereby our Saviour wrought our redemption, have been consummated,-yet are we still Sinners: and where there is sin, there must be expiation.
The Apostles, therefore, legislated for our weakness, by instituting, at the very commencement of the Christian Church, that the Solemnity of Easter should be preceded by a universal Fast; and it was only natural, that they should have made this period of Penance to consist of Forty Days, seeing that our Divine Master had consecrated that number by his own Fast. St. Jerome,1 St. Leo the Great,2 St. Cyril of Alexandria, St. Isidore of Seville, and others of the Holy Fathers, assure us that Lent was instituted by the Apostles, although, at the commencement, there was not any uniform way of observing it.
We have already seen, in our Septuagesima, that the Orientals begin their Lent much earlier than the Latins, owing to their custom of never fasting on Saturdays, (or, in some places, even on Thursdays). They are, consequently, obliged, in order to make up the forty days, to begin the Lenten Fast on the Monday preceding our Sexagesima Sunday. These are the kind of exceptions, which prove the rule. We have also shown, how the Latin Church,-which, even so late as the 6th Century, kept only thirty-six fasting days during the six weeks of Lent, (for the Church has never allowed Sundays to be kept as days of fast,)-thought proper to add, later on, the last four days of Quinquagesima, in order that her Lent might contain exactly Forty Days of Fast.
The whole subject of Lent has been so often and
1 Epist. xxvii., ad Marcellam.
3 Homil. Paschal.
De Ecclesiast. Officiis, lib. vi., cap. xix.
so fully treated, that we shall abridge, as much as possible, the History we are now giving. The nature of our Work forbids us to do more, than insert what is essential for the entering into the spirit of each Season. God grant, that we may succeed in showing to the Faithful the importance of the holy institution of Lent! Its influence on the spiritual life, and on the very salvation, of each one among us, can never be over-rated.
Lent, then, is a time consecrated, in an especial manner, to penance; and this penance is mainly practised by Fasting. Fasting is an abstinence, which man voluntarily imposes upon himself, as an expiation for sin, and which, during Lent, is practised in obedience to the general law of the Church. According to the actual discipline of the Western Church, the Fast of Lent is not more rigorous than that prescribed for the Vigils of certain Feasts, and for the Ember Days; but it is kept up for Forty successive Days, with the single interruption of the intervening Sundays.
We deem it unnecessary to show the importance and advantages of Fasting. The Sacred Scriptures, both of the Old and New Testament, are filled with the praises of this holy practice. The traditions of every nation of the world testify the universal veneration, in which it has ever been held; for there is not a people, nor a religion, how much soever it may have lost the purity of primitive traditions, which is not impressed with this conviction, that man may appease his God by subjecting his body to penance.
St. Basil, St. John Chrysostom, St. Jerome, and St. Gregory the Great, make the remark, that the commandment put upon our First Parents, in the earthly paradise, was one of Abstinence; and that it was by their not exercising this virtue, that they brought every kind of evil upon themselves and us their children. The life of privation, which the king
of creation had thenceforward to lead on the earth,(for the earth was to yield him nothing, of its own natural growth, save thorns and thistles,)—was the clearest possible exemplification of the law of penance, imposed by the anger of God on rebellious man.
During the two thousand and more years, which preceded the Deluge, men had no other food than the fruits of the earth, and these were only got by the toil of hard labour. But when God, as we have already observed, mercifully shortened man's life, (that so he might have less time and power for sin,) -he permitted him to eat the flesh of animals, as an additional nourishment in that state of deteriorated strength. It was then, also, that Noah, guided by a divine inspiration, extracted the juice of the grape, which thus formed a second stay for human debility.
Fasting, then, is the abstaining from such nourishments as these, which were permitted for the support of bodily strength. And firstly, it consisted in abstinence from flesh-meat, because it is a food that was given to man by God, out of condescension to his weakness, and not as one absolutely essential for the maintenance of life. Its privation, greater or less according to the regulations of the Church, is essential to the very notion of Fasting. Thus, whilst in many countries, the use of eggs, milk-meats, and even of dripping and lard, is tolerated,—the abstaining from flesh-meat is everywhere maintained, as being essential to Fasting. For many centuries, eggs and milk-meats were not allowed, because they come under the class of animal food: even to this day, they are forbidden in the Eastern Churches, and are only allowed in the Latin Church by virtue of an annual dispensation. The precept of abstaining from flesh-meat is so essential to Lent, that even on Sundays, when the Fasting is interrupted, Abstinence is an obligation, binding even on those who are
dispensed from the fasts of the week, unless there be a special dispensation granted for eating meat on the Sundays.
In the early ages of Christianity, Fasting included also the abstaining from Wine, as we learn from St. Cyril of Jerusalem,1 St. Basil,2 St. John Chrysostom,3 Theophilus of Alexandria, and others. In the West, this custom soon fell into disuse. The Eastern Christians kept it up much longer, but even with them it has ceased to be considered as obligatory.
Lastly, Fasting includes the depriving ourselves of some portion of our ordinary food, inasmuch as it only allows the taking of one meal during the day. Though the modifications introduced from age to age in the discipline of Lent, are very numerous, yet the points we have here mentioned belong to the very essence of Fasting, as is evident from the universal practice of the Church.
It was the custom with the Jews, in the Old Law, not to take the one meal, allowed on fasting days, till sun-set. The Christian Church adopted the same custom. It was scrupulously practised, for many centuries, even in our Western countries, But, about the 9th century, some relaxation began to be introduced in the Latin Church. Thus, we have a Capitularium of Theodulph, Bishop of Orleans, (who lived at that period,) protesting against the practice, which some had, of taking their repast at the hour of None, that is to say, about three o'clock in the afternoon.5 The relaxation, however, gradually spread; for, in the 10th century, we find the celebrated Ratherius, Bishop of Verona, acknowledging, that the Faithful had permission to break their fast at the hour of None. We meet with a sort of recla
1 Catech. iv.
2 Homil. i. De Jejunio.
3 Homil. iv. Ad populum Antioch. Serm. 1, De Quadrages.
4 Litt. Pasch, iii.
5 Capitul. xxxix. Labb. Conc., tom. viii.
D'Achery. Spicilegium, tom. ii.