Lent: the original quarantine

January 31st, 2022

These years of “Pandemictide”[i] are wearing, to say the least. A common sentiment expressed among pastors and leaders is that these years feel like an extended Lent. We’re waiting, and waiting, and waiting; yet, even with so many great advances in vaccines and public health measures, the wilderness stretches as far as the horizon. Time seems to move forward, and yet so many feel stuck.

What might the origins of Lent offer us—a weary, wilderness people in a seemingly unending season?

Lenten Terms

The old English origin of the word Lent is lencten, referring generally to the Spring season and its lengthening of days. The Latin origins of the term add even more specificity to these lengthening days. Quadragesima means “forty days.” Modern Romance languages retain this forty-day specificity in their naming practices. In Spanish, Lent is Cuaresma; in French, Carême; in Italian, Quaresima.

The Italian Quaresima is especially interesting. In the fourteenth century during the Black Death, an isolation period of quaranta giorni—forty days—was prescribed to all ships and people before entering the Venetian city of Dubrovnik (now in Croatia).[ii] These terms, Quaresima and quaranta giorni are etymologically linked to a word we never would have guessed to become so colloquial: quarantine. 

Thomas Talley’s influential book from 1991 is titled The Origins of the Liturgical Year. As I thumbed through the Lent section, I gasped when Talley nonchalantly (and serendipitously) invoked this term in the section titled, “The Prepaschal Quarantine in the Fourth Century.”[iii]

What was the nature of this quarantine? Was it always forty days? Was it always connected to Easter? To baptism? To fasting?

The origins of Lent are somewhat mysterious. Early Christian practices were far from uniform. While Talley is an excellent resource for any research related to the Christian Year, many of his claims have been challenged by scholars of later generations. In what follows, I show various origin stories for Lent, offering pluriformity instead of uniformity; mystery instead of certainty.

Lenten Origin Stories

Perhaps the origins of Lent are to be found in a three-week preparation for baptism by catechumens in Jerusalem and North Africa. There is a spurious fifth-century reference by Socrates about a three-week pre-Easter observance in Rome.[iv] We have early Roman lectionary-based evidence about this three-week period. We also have the fifth-century Armenian lectionary mentioning a pre-baptismal instructional period of three weeks or more, which likely reflects an earlier practice. We even have harmony with the Jewish tradition. Jewish liturgical historian Lawrence Hoffman points out early rabbinic sources that encourage a three-week preparation for the Passover by cleansing oneself of impurities.[v]However, even with all these correlations, here is the biggest problem aside from their dates of authorship: the connections to Easter are tenuous at best.

Thomas Talley looks elsewhere, tracing the origins of Lent to the Alexandrian tradition in Egypt. According to Talley’s reading of the so-called Apostolic Tradition, Alexandrian Christians observed a forty-day fast, but it was difficult to pin down when this occurred. Was this a post-Epiphany fast in imitation of Christ’s own time of fasting in the wilderness? Or was it a fast in anticipation of Easter? Or even more specifically, in anticipation of baptism at Easter? Talley suggests that this forty-day fast after Epiphany would eventually become a pre-Easter fast in the aftermath of the Council of Nicaea (325 CE).[vi] Talley’s work is criticized because many of his arguments rely on some “historical” materials whose authenticity has been seriously questioned.[vii] However, there is enough scholarly consensus that Talley’s Alexandrian theory may still be on the right track.

As Nicholas Russo notes, “the early history of Lent is…something of a ‘choose your own adventure.’”[viii] There is no definitive historical trajectory. The origin of Lent is both complex and profoundly simple: it’s a mystery.

As Christianity became both legal and official in the fourth-century, liturgical practices became slightly more uniform. After the Council of Nicaea, the preference for Easter baptisms was widespread and well-documented. Paul Bradshaw and Max Johnson contend that all these disparate preparatory practices (three-week fasting, forty-day fasting, etc.) became harmonized, standardized, and most importantly, “paschalized.”[ix] In other words, because Easter was a big deal, the [what would become a] forty-day preparatory period leading up to it must be, as well. 

Following the Council of Nicaea, we know that Lent was eventually codified as a forty-day observance (not counting Sundays), culminating in the events of Holy Week and Easter. We also know that Lent became a season of preparation for adult Christian initiation by baptism. 

However, Lent would shift yet again. As infant baptism was standardized by the fifth century, and as many adults were already baptized, Lent became less about baptismal preparation and more of an internal spiritual observance. Lent was a time of individual and communal preparation for the events of Holy Week and Easter, characterized by penitence.

Our Lenten Quarantine

Over the centuries, the ground for Lent seems unsteady because so much historical and theological shifting and pivoting occured. As pastors and leaders, this is fitting terrain for the quarantine we are about to encounter.

Our Lenten quarantine is right around the corner. Believe it or not, it’s the third(ish) Lent that we’ll observe during this pandemic. Unsteady ground seems to be the norm, these days.

However, the norm remains uneasy.We still have jobs to do. There is so much we are asked to be steady and certain about: worship planning to do, sermons to write, people to visit, phone calls to make, volunteers to mobilize, classes to teach, vision to cast, and all the other balls we have in the air. On top of this, we are asked to make decisions with certainty about how we gather in a pandemic: virtual-only or hybrid, masks-required or masks-optional, indoors or outdoors, food or no food, singing or no singing, etc.

So much certainty is asked of us in such uncertain times.

If the origin stories of Lent can offer us any wisdom in these days ahead, it is this: normalize unsteadiness. Codify mystery. Find comfort in the uncertainty. Take delight in what might be[come].

In an age where certitude is lauded, Lent invites us into a season of unknowing: fasting, praying, confessing, and pardoning—journeying alongside Jesus.

If you are like me and could use a blessing right now in this unsteady season, receive these words:

May the God who, in Christ Jesus, took on flesh and walked these unsteady forty days, go with you, guide you, and sustain you. Amen.

Watch how to sign 'self-denial' in American Sign Language

[i] At the North American Academy of Liturgy, a subsection of the “Emerging Scholars” group deemed [lightheartedly] that the official liturgical color of “Pandemictide” is “surgical mask blue.”

[ii] Joe Schwarcz, “The Word ‘Quarantine’ Comes from the Italian Word ‘Forty Days,’” McGill University Office for Science and Society, February 6, 2020, https://www.mcgill.ca/oss/article/did-you-know-health/word-quarantine-comes-italian-word-forty-days

[iii] Thomas J. Talley, The Origins of the Liturgical Year, 2nd ed. (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1991), 168.

[iv] The historical information that follows (with precise citations of historical documents) can be found in Paul Bradshaw and Maxwell Johnson, The Origins of Feasts, Fasts, and Seasons in Early Christianity (Collegeville, MN: Pueblo Books, 2011).

[v] Lawrence A. Hoffman, “The Jewish Lectionary, the Great Sabbath, and the Lenten Calendar: Liturgical Links between Christians and Jews in the First Three Centuries,” in J. Neil Alexander (ed.), Time and Community (Washington, DC: The Pastoral Press, 1990), 14.

[vi] Talley, The Origins of the Liturgical Year, 163-225.

[vii] In particular, the Secret Gospel of Mark (the Mar Saba Clementine Fragmenti).

[viii] Nicholas Russo, “The Early History of Lent,” The Center for Christian Ethics at Baylor University, 2013, 18.

[ix] Bradshaw and Johnson, The Origins of Feasts, Fasts, and Seasons in Early Christianity, 112.

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