Condensed from The Liturgical Year by Abbot Guéranger OSB
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. In most languages, the name given to this fast expresses the number of days - forty, such as Quadragesima in Latin; the English word Lent signifies the Spring-fast, for Lenten-tide in the ancient Anglo-Saxon language, was the season of Spring. Our Blessed Lord Himself sanctioned this fast by fasting forty days and forty nights in the desert; and though He did not impose it on the world by an express commandment (which, in that case, 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 practiced also 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." (Matt. 9, 14-15)
Hence we find it mentioned, in the Acts of the Apostles, how the disciples of Our Lord, after the 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 Savior wrought our Redemption have been consummated, yet we are 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, St. Leo the Great, St. Cyril of Alexandria, St. Isidore of Seville, and others of the Fathers of the Church, assure us that Lent was instituted by the Apostles, although, at the beginning, there was no uniform way of observing it.
Thus the Eastern Rites begin Lent much earlier than the Latin, owing to their custom of never fasting on Saturdays. This is the origin of the Latin Rite's Septuagesima, which roughly corresponds to the beginning of the Eastern Lent. We see also that the Latin Rite - which, even as late as the sixth 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 it proper to add, later on, the last four days of Quinquagesima, in order that her Lent, beginning with Ash Wednesday, might contain forty days of fast.
St. Basil, St. John Chrysostom, St. Jerome, and St. Gregory the Great, make the remark, that the commandment put upon our first parents was one of abstinence; and that it was by their not exercising this virtue, that they brought every kind of evil upon themselves and upon us their children. The life of privation, which the king of creation, Adam, had thenceforward to lead on this earth (for the earth was to yield him nothing of its 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.
When God mercifully shortened man's ordinary life span, 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 deteriorating strength. Fasting, then, includes abstinence from such nourishment as this. Its privation is essential to the very notion of fasting.
Fasting also includes the depriving ourselves of some portion of our ordinary food, inasmuch as it allows only one full meal during the day. It was the custom with the Jews, in the old Law, not to take the one meal allowed on fast days, till sunset. The Christian Church adopted the same custom. It was scrupulously practiced for many centuries. But about the ninth century some relaxation began to be introduced in the Latin Church, and the custom, though resisted at first, gradually spread of taking the repast after the hour of None, that is, about three in the afternoon. By the late thirteenth century, even this was considered too severe, and a still further relaxation was deemed necessary - that of breaking the fast after the hour of Sext, or after noon.
But whilst this relaxation of taking the repast so early in the day as noon rendered fasting less difficult in one way, it made it more severe in another - by evening the body had grown exhausted by the labors of the day. It was found necessary to grant some refreshment for the evening, and it was called a collation. The word was taken from the Benedictine rule, which allows wine to be taken in the evening on fast days outside of Lent. It was the custom to read from the Collationes of Cassian during this refreshment; thus the name. Shortly after the death of St. Karl the Great, the Chapter of Aachen extended this indulgence to the Lenten fast. By the fifteenth century, it was permitted to take a morsel of bread with the wine, so the monks would not be obliged to take wine on an empty stomach. These mitigations gradually found their way from the cloister to the world, and eventually a second collation was permitted - so long as the two collations together did not constitute a full meal. Eventually, a variety of foods, besides bread, were permitted at the collations, with the exception of meat. Beverages were permitted between meals.
Thus did the decay of piety, and the general deterioration of bodily strength among the people of the western nations, infringe on the primitive observance of fasting. To make our history of these humiliating changes anything like complete, we must mention further relaxations. For many centuries eggs and dairy foods were not allowed, because they came under the class of animal food. Beginning with the ninth century, dairy foods were gradually permitted, especially in northern Europe. The Churches of France resisted this custom until the seventeenth century.
In earlier ages, even princes had difficulty in obtaining dispensations. Wenceslaus, king of Bohemia, being seized with a malady which rendered it dangerous to his health to take the Lenten diet, applied, in the year 1297, to Pope Boniface VIII, for permission to eat meat. The Pontiff commissioned two Cistercian abbots to inquire into the real state of the prince's health; they were to grant the dispensation if they found it necessary, but only on condition that the king had not taken a vow to observe the fast for life, that he must abstain from meat on Fridays, Saturdays and the vigil of St. Matthias, and that he must not take his meal in the presence of others and was to observe moderation in what he took. But after the fifteenth century, dispensations became increasingly easy to obtain. Eventually eggs and even meat were widely permitted on most of the Lenten fast days. Pope Benedict XIV lamented this general relaxation in an encyclical in 1741, and, in 1745, he renewed the prohibition of eating fish and meat at the same meal - but even this prohibition has been generally relaxed.
How few Christians do we meet who are strict observers of Lent, even in its present mild form! What comparison can be made between the Christians of former times, who, deeply impressed with the fear of God's judgments and with the spirit of penance, happily went through these forty days, and those of modern times, when love of pleasure and self-indulgence are forever lessening man's horror for sin? Where is now that simple and innocent joy at Easter, which our forefathers used to show, when, after their severe fast of Lent, they partook of substantial and savory food? The peace, which long and sharp mortification ever brings to the conscience, gave them the capability, not to say the right, of being light-hearted as they returned to the comforts of life, which they had denied themselves in order to spend forty days in penance, recollection, and retirement from the world.
In the "ages of faith", Lent was a season during which, not only all amusements and theatrical entertainments were forbidden by the civil authority, but even the law courts were closed; and this in order to secure that peace and calm of heart, which is so indispensable for the soul's self-examination and reconciliation with her offended Maker. Hunting, too, was for many ages considered forbidden during Lent. Even war, which is sometimes so necessary for the welfare of a nation, was suspended during this holy season. Indeed, in the eleventh century, the institution called "God's truce" became widespread, which forbade the carrying of arms from Wednesday evening until Monday morning throughout the year. St. Edward the Confessor, King of England, decreed that God's truce should be observed without cessation from the beginning of Advent through the Octave of Easter and from the Ascension through the Octave of Pentecost, as well as on all Ember days and Vigils, beside the days already prescribed.
Thus did the secular world testify its respect for the holy observances of Lent, and borrow some of its wisest institutions from the seasons and feasts of the liturgical year. The influence of this forty days' penance was great, too, on each individual. It renewed man's energies, gave him fresh vigor in battling with his animal instincts, and, by the restraint it put upon sensuality, ennobled the soul. There was restraint everywhere; and the present discipline of the Church, which forbids the solemnization of marriage during Lent, reminds Christians of that holy continency, which, for many ages, was observed during the whole forty days as a precept, and of which the most sacred of the liturgical books, the Missale Romanum, still retains the recommendation. The final rubric of the Nuptial Mass states: Let the priest admonish them, in grave words…to remain chaste during the time of prayer, especially fasts and solemnities…(such as on liturgical vigils and during the penitential seasons of Lent and Advent.)
In closing, we extract from the encyclical of Pope Benedict XIV, cited above: The observance of Lent is the very badge of the Christian warfare. By it we prove ourselves not to be enemies of Christ. By it we avert the scourges of divine justice. By it we gain strength against the princes of darkness, for it shields us with heavenly help. Should mankind grow remiss in their observance of Lent, it would be a detriment to God's glory, a disgrace to the Catholic religion, and a danger to Christian souls. Neither can it be doubted that such negligence would become the source of misery to the world, of public calamity, and of private woe.
More than two hundred years have elapsed since this solemn warning of the Vicar of Christ was given to the world; and during that time, the relaxation he inveighed against has gone on gradually increasing. The result of this ever-growing spirit of immortification has been a general laxity of character, which has led to frightful social disorders. The sad predictions of Pope Benedict XIV are but too truly verified. Every nation among whose people the spirit and practice of penance are extinct, are heaping against themselves the wrath of God, and provoking His justice to destroy them by one or other of these scourges - civil disorder or conquest.
It is sad and humiliating to note that as laxities were introduced by the hierarchy and local churches into the laws of fasting and practices of severe penance, the members of the Church have suffered immeasurable spiritual loss - a loss of at least part of the rigor of those sacred times set apart to cleanse their bodies and souls of imperfections and the corrupting spirit of the world. In our modern times, the spread of permissiveness, liberalism, deterioration of morality and the general practices of purity, have led to a spirit of relaxation and the loss of a general effort, on the part of the faithful, to strive for a life of holiness and of union with God through the practices of self-denial, mortification, piety and renouncement of the spirit of the world - a spirit which is opposed to the spirit of a true Christian life and the very possibility of eternal salvation.