Lent is rich in meanings these days. Comedians portray it as a long stretch of Catholic masochism. People who gained weight at Christmas plan for it as a time to diet. Fundraisers welcome it as a windfall of weekly fish fries.

Its original meaning — dating back to the origins of Christianity — was probably very simple.

It was a necessary moment in a yearly imitation of the life of Jesus. The Church let the calendar tell the story.

In Egypt, the year began with the commemoration of Jesus’ birth at Christmas, followed by the visit of the Magi at Epiphany and then the feast of the Lord’s baptism.

And what should come next? The Gospels say that after Jesus was baptized, “the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness” (Mark 1:12) for 40 days of fasting and prayer. So the Christians took their cues most literally from the text. They scheduled a 40-day period of fasting to follow “immediately” after the feast of Jesus’ baptism. 

The calendar enabled Christians to accompany the Lord as he moved from infancy toward his public ministry — and then, later, to his passion and death at the time of Passover.

That’s how the seasons ran in Egypt anyway. The Church in Rome developed its calendar more slowly, it seems, and added its long fast somewhat later in the year. 

But the Romans didn’t tether their observance to a literal reading of the biblical text. They understood their springtime fast to be not so much a remembrance of Jesus’ time in the desert — but rather an extended preparation for the Church’s greatest feast of all: Easter Sunday.

Easter was the day when Romans preferred to baptize new converts. So the fast was seen as a preparation for Christian initiation as well.

Eventually, the Egyptians rearranged their custom to match the Roman observance — though some athletes of prayer tried to keep both seasons, now fused into a single, super-long fast that stretched from mid-January till Easter Sunday. Realizing that this was unhealthy overkill, St. Athanasius discouraged it.

Not until the Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325 was the Roman fast, 40 days leading up to Easter, made standard for the whole Church.

Even then, fasting meant something different from place to place. Some churches urged their members to do without meat, fish, eggs, dairy, and wine. Some restricted the Christian diet to bread, water, salt, and vegetables (boiled or raw). Others reduced the number of daily meals.

Gradually, however, Christians came to a common understanding of the season that encompassed both the Egyptian and Roman customs.

Yes, Christians were fasting 40 days in imitation of Jesus — whose own fast was anticipated by those of Moses and Elijah in the Old Testament (see Exodus 34:28 and 1 Kings 19:18).

But Jesus’ fast, like everything in his public ministry, was remote preparation for something yet to come. It was training for the suffering he would endure in his saving passion. It was remote preparation for his paschal mystery.

So the Roman custom was following the Gospel text just as faithfully as the Egyptian custom had. But rather than counting forward from Jesus’ birth and baptism, the Romans looked backward from his death and resurrection.

Some Christians, then, interpreted the Lenten fast as a preparation for death, the universal destiny. Over the course of 40 days they would learn from the Master how to be gradually detached from the things of this world — how to “lay down their lives” (see John 15:13) and go willingly to death, even if that meant martyrdom preceded by torture. Indeed, the duration of 40 days may have first been established during a time of intense persecution. Sts. Augustine and Jerome claim that it was.

As the days of Lenten preparation drew to a close, Christians would learn also to “watch and pray” because, as Jesus said, “the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Mark 14:38).

In the early centuries of Christianity, then, Lent was all these things:

  • An imitation of Christ (and Moses and Elijah).
  • A preparation for Easter.
  • A preparation for baptism.
  • A time of instruction in religious doctrine and practice.
  • A time of repentance.
  • A time of disciplined preparation for martyrdom.

Over the centuries, the particulars changed, the measurements varied, the disciplines diversified. Christians discovered countless ways to count to 40!

The meanings, moreover, multiplied — or rather they accumulated in layers. At root Lent was, and remains, a time when Christians strive to walk closely with Jesus, and this is done in many time-honored ways. With him we go forward from baptismal grace, through temptation and deserts, to dying, rising, and ultimate glory.