Thursday, February 18, 2010
Most of us instinctively associate Lent with Jesus' fast in the desert, and there's plenty of Church fathers ready to back us up. But you may be surprised to learn that this penitential season did not develop as a way to commemorate or reenact that event.
As pagans began converting to Christianity in droves, catechetical schools were founded all over the Roman empire, the most famous at Alexandria. The tradition of baptizing pagans on the Easter vigil is an ancient tradition, and the catechumens would be required to fast for a period of several days before their baptism. Some pious Catholics began voluntarily joining the catechumens in their pre-baptism fast, and over time, the duration of fasting was extended until it reached the traditional 40 days.
Soon, theologians began to associate the 40 days of this fast leading up to Easter with Jesus' desert fast. The association, therefore, is post-development. i.e. The fast did not develop as a tradition to commemorate Jesus' fast. That meaning, though valid, was retrospectively attached it. See Gregory Dix, "The Shape of the Liturgy" 1945 for more.