Is Lent a Christian Holiday? What About Ash Wednesday?

By COGwriter

Over the past few years, I have noticed that some Protestants sometimes are embracing the Roman Catholic season of Lent.

What is Lent? What does it mean? What about Ash Wednesday? What Winter-Spring holy days did Christ observe? Is there a Lent Holiday in the Bible?

Does the Bible support the observance of Lent? Did the apostles observe it?

How did it enter the world's Christianity?

This article will attempt to answer those questions from historical sources and the Bible.

What is Lent?

Lent is a forty-day period of time that proceeds the Catholic holiday commonly called Easter. During this time, observers tend to give up something they like (such as a food, like meat or certain meals or a form of secular entertainment, like television) essentially as a form of "fasting" for the purposes of getting closer to God or for penance.

Specifically many:

...observe Lent by fasting, performing penance, giving alms, abstaining from amusements...(Ramm B. Lent. World Book Encyclopedia, 50th ed., Volume 12. Chicago, p. 175).

What does Lent mean?

Here is how The Catholic Encyclopedia defines Lent:

The Teutonic word Lent, which we employ to denote the forty days' fast preceding Easter, originally meant no more than the spring season (Thurston H. Transcribed by Anthony A. Killeen. A.M.D.G. Lent. The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume IX. Published 1910. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Nihil Obstat, October 1, 1910. Remy Lafort, Censor. Imprimatur. +John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York).

In other words, Lent means the Spring season (it may be of interest to note that Easter is a Teutonic word as well).

But since Lent means Spring and Lent now begins and is primarily in the Winter, where did it really come from?

When is Lent Observed?

The World Book Encyclopedia states:

Lent is a religious season observed in the spring...It begins on Ash Wednesday, 40 days before Easter, excluding Sundays, and ends on Easter Sunday (Ramm B. Lent. World Book Encyclopedia, 50th ed., Volume 12. Chicago, p. 175).

What is Ash Wednesday?

The Catholic Encyclopedia reports:

Ash Wednesday
The Wednesday after Quinquagesima Sunday, which is the first day of the Lenten fast.

The name dies cinerum (day of ashes) which it bears in the Roman Missal is found in the earliest existing copies of the Gregorian Sacramentary and probably dates from at least the eighth century. On this day all the faithful according to ancient custom are exhorted to approach the altar before the beginning of Mass, and there the priest, dipping his thumb into ashes previously blessed, marks the forehead (Ash Wednesday. The Catholic Encyclopedia).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia states:

Ash Wednesday, in the Western Church, the first day of Lent, being the seventh Wednesday before Easter. On this day ashes are placed on the foreheads of the faithful to remind them of death, of the sorrow they should feel for their sins, and of the necessity of changing their lives. The practice, which dates from the early Middle Ages, is common among Roman Catholics, Anglicans and Episcopalians, and many Lutherans; it was also adopted by some Methodists and Presbyterians in the 1990s (The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2007, Columbia University Press).

Notice that Ash Wednesday was not an original observance of even the Church of Rome, it is another one of the many changes that church adopted that the true Church of God did not (for more details, please see Which Is Faithful: The Roman Catholic Church or the Continuing Church of God?).

Despite that, notice the following from the 1988 circular letter on Lent and Easter “Paschales Solemnitatis,” issued by the Congregation for Divine Worship of the Church of Rome:

“21. On the Wednesday before the first Sunday of Lent, the faithful receive the ashes, thus entering into the time established for the purification of their souls. This sign of penance, a traditionally biblical one, has been preserved among the Church’s customs until the present day. It signifies the human condition of the sinner, who seeks to express his guilt before the Lord in an exterior manner, and by so doing express his interior conversion, led on by the confident hope that the Lord will be merciful. This same sign marks the beginning of the way of conversion, which is developed through the celebration of the sacraments of penance during the days before Easter.” (As cited in McNamara E, Priest.  Ashes Earlier. Zenit, March 4, 2014. http://www.zenit.org/en/articles/ashes-earlier)

No one in the Old or New Testaments was ever recorded as putting ashes on their foreheads in a shape of a cross.  Yet, also notice the following claims from the Shorter Book of Blessings by the Church of Rome:

1059. The season of Lent begins with the ancient practice of marking the baptized with ashes as a public and communal sign of penance. The blessing and distribution of ashes on Ash Wednesday normally takes place during the celebration of Mass. (As cited in McNamara E, Priest.  Ashes Earlier. Zenit, March 4, 2014. http://www.zenit.org/en/articles/ashes-earlier)

The Bible does not show that the baptized received ashes on their foreheads in the shape of a cross (see also What is the Origin of the Cross as a 'Christian' Symbol? and/or watch a related YouTube video would be Origin of the Cross). Furthermore, this is not part of the early traditions of Christians.  It seems to have been a practice of pagans, however.

One who believes in Ash Wednesday once sent me the following:

Ash Wednesday is approaching and with it the rite of the imposition of ashes on the foreheads...

My question is, why does the gospel for Ash Wednesday include the reading of Jesus's words forbidding the imposition of ashes?

Moreover when ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.

Isn't this strange, that we should do something that Jesus has forbidden and at the same time read out ceremonially his words forbidding it?

I have asked Anglican and Catholic priests about this but they have offered no answers. Can you suggest any?

In my response, I mentioned that The Catholic Encyclopedia indicated more like a sixth century introduction of it. Now here is another Catholic-approved translation of that verse he asked about:

16 'When you are fasting, do not put on a gloomy look as the hypocrites do: they go about looking unsightly to let people know they are fasting. In truth I tell you, they have had their reward. (Matthew 6:16, NJB)

I also responded to the emailer with the following:

While you are correct that people in the Old Testament used ashes as part of their sorrowing, there was no ceremony in the New Testament that encouraged this.  And as you pointed out, Ash Wednesday seems to be in opposition to the principle that Jesus espoused in Matthew 6:16...

As far as why Rome violates various passages of scripture, Rome and others have often changed doctrines from the Bible and the practices of the apostles.  An article that documents this, that probably contains a lot you would be surprised about, would be: Which Is Faithful: The Roman Catholic Church or the Continuing Church of God?

The falsely named Christianity Today also indicated that Ash Wednesday came into being around the sixth or seventh century by Rome:

The Beginning of Lent...
Until the 600s, Lent began on Quadragesima (Fortieth) Sunday, but Gregory the Great (c.540-604) moved it to a Wednesday, now called Ash Wednesday, to secure the exact number of 40 days in Lent—not counting Sundays, which were feast days. Gregory, who is regarded as the father of the medieval papacy, is also credited with the ceremony that gives the day its name. (http://www.christianitytoday.com/ch/news/2004/lent.html)

So, "Ash Wednesday" apparently did not originate on a Wednesday. Of course, the entire lenten period is not from the Bible, hence it should be of no surprise that it has had various changes in its observation.

Perhaps I should also mention that the Eastern Orthodox Church does not celebrate Ash Wednesday.

The Bible

Neither the Bible, which was not written in a Teutonic language, nor its translations (which sometimes are) uses the terms Lent or Ash Wednesday. Nor does it seem to positively describe any of the processes associated with Ash Wednesday.

The Old Testament uses the term Spring four or so times, but in the context of wars, not fasting. It does, however, endorse certain religious observances for that time of the year. It also mentions that the year begins on the first day of a certain lunar month (called Abib or Nisan) which is normally the first day of Spring (though it does not actually use that term). Note that God defines when the year begins:

This month shall be your beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year to you (Exodus 12:2 NKJV, throughout unless otherwise noted).

The God-ordained religious festivals mentioned as occurring in what is the Spring season of the year include Passover, the Days of Unleavened Bread, and Pentecost.

Here is the mention of the first two:

'These are the feasts of the LORD, holy convocations which you shall proclaim at their appointed times. On the fourteenth day of the first month at twilight is the LORD's Passover. And on the fifteenth day of the same month is the Feast of Unleavened Bread to the LORD; seven days you must eat unleavened bread (Leviticus 23:4-6).

The above were clearly observed by Jesus, the Apostles, and the early Church (for additional documentation, please see the articles Passover and the Early Church, Melito's Homily on the Passover, and Should Christians Keep the Days of Unleavened Bread?).

Here is a couple of verses about the days of unleavened bread and eating:

Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread. On the first day you shall remove leaven from your houses. For whoever eats leavened bread from the first day until the seventh day, that person shall be cut off from Israel...For seven days no leaven shall be found in your houses, since whoever eats what is leavened, that same person shall be cutoff from the congregation of Israel, whether he is a stranger or a native of the land. You shall eat nothing leavened; in all your habitations you shall eat unleavened bread (Exodus 12:15,19-20).

Since no leaven is allowed to be eaten during the days of unleavened bread, this could be considered as a form of fasting. It however, differs from the Lenten forms of fasting in that it begins the day after Passover and lasts for seven days. Most (and in some years, all) of the Lenten fasting occurs prior to the Passover (and most of it occurs in the Winter, not the Spring season, in spite of the fact that Lent means Spring).

The next observance mentioned in the Old Testament comes during the days of unleavened bread:

Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them: 'When you come into the land which I give to you, and reap its harvest, then you shall bring a sheaf of the firstfruits of your harvest to the priest. He shall wave the sheaf before the LORD, to be accepted on your behalf; on the day after the Sabbath the priest shall wave it (Leviticus 23:10-11).

Jesus Himself (who was also our Passover 1 Corinthians 5:7), fulfilled this sometime after He was resurrected (cf. John 20:17,27 KJV). This day was used both in the Old Testament and New Testament times to count when the next holy day would occur. Here is the Old Testament comment:

'And you shall count for yourselves from the day after the Sabbath, from the day that you brought the sheaf of the wave offering: seven Sabbaths shall be completed. Count fifty days to the day after the seventh Sabbath (Leviticus 23:15-16).

The Greek term, used in the New Testament, is Pentecost, which means 50th, from the practice of it being the fiftieth day from the wave sheaf offering. The above are all the religious periods that the Old Testament mentioned that occur in the Spring (none, other than the weekly Sabbath, occur in the Winter season).

The term Spring is not mentioned in the New Testament. When referring to the early Spring season, the New Testament mentions biblical holy days, like Passover and the Days of Unleavened Bread (for early Spring) and Pentecost (for late Spring)--it also mentions that Jesus and/or His disciples observed all of those. While the New Testament does mention a period called "the Fast" (Acts 27:9), scholars of most religious communities admit that this is referring to what is called in Hebrew Yom Kippur or Day of Atonement in English, which is a holy day that occurs in the Fall.

Thus, there is no specific Winter-Spring fast that the Bible (Old or New Testaments) teaches should be followed. It may be that Lent, which is not proscribed in the Bible, developed as a substitute for the Days of Unleavened Bread, which are in the Bible, essentially to compromise with those who had not been raised as Christian.

Yet There Are 40 Day Fasts in The Bible

The Bible, does, however, discuss several forty-day fasts. Including those by Moses, Elijah, and Jesus.

Here are several of them, starting with Moses:

When I went up into the mountain to receive the tablets of stone, the tablets of the covenant which the LORD made with you, then I stayed on the mountain forty days and forty nights. I neither ate bread nor drank water (Deuteronomy 9:9).

So he arose, and ate and drank; and he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights as far as Horeb, the mountain of God. And there he went into a cave, and spent the night in that place; and behold, the word of the LORD came to him, and He said to him, "What are you doing here, Elijah?" (1 Kings 19:8-9).

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 And when He had fasted forty days and forty nights, afterward He was hungry (Matt 4:1-2).

One thing that all the above fasts had in common is that the participants did not eat at all for forty-days and at least one of them did not drink anything then either. The 40 day fasts in the Bible did not resemble Lent, they were not any type of annual practice, and the apostles never observed one as far as can be determined.

The Catholics and others who observe Lent claim that the forty-days period most likely comes from their example. Notice:

In determining this period of forty days the example of Moses, Elias, and Christ must have exercised a predominant influence (Lent. The Catholic Encyclopedia).

However, the claim by some that this was observed by the Apostles is admitted to be unfounded:

Some of the Fathers as early as the fifth century supported the view that this forty days' fast was of Apostolic institution...But the best modern scholars are almost unanimous in rejecting this view...Formerly some difference of opinion existed as to the proper reading, but modern criticism (e.g., in the edition of Schwartz commissioned by the Berlin Academy) pronounces strongly in favor of the text translated above. We may then fairly conclude that Irenaeus about the year 190 knew nothing of any Easter fast of forty days...And there is the same silence observable in all the pre-Nicene Fathers, though many had occasion to mention such an Apostolic institution if it had existed. We may note for example that there is no mention of Lent in St. Dionysius of Alexandria (ed. Feltoe, 94 sqq.) or in the "Didascalia", which Funk attributes to about the year 250 (Lent. The Catholic Encyclopedia).

The Orthodox Catholic apologist Arnobius (died 330) warned against the type of fasts that pagans had and even seemed to warn about a Mardi Gras banquet followed by a fast:

What say you, O wise sons of Erectheus? what, you citizens of Minerva? The mind is eager to know with what words you will defend what it is so dangerous to maintain, or what arts you have by which to give safety to personages and causes wounded so mortally. This is no false mistrust, nor are you assailed with lying accusations: the infamy of your Eleusinia is declared both by their base beginnings and by the records of ancient literature, by the very signs, in fine, which you use when questioned in receiving the sacred things,—" I have fasted, and drunk the draught; I have taken out of the mystic cist, and put into the wicker-basket; I have received again, and transferred to the little chest" (Arnobius. Against the Heathen, Book V, Chapter 26).

The feast of Jupiter is tomorrow. Jupiter, I suppose, dines, and must be satiated with great banquets, and long filled with eager cravings for food by fasting, and hungry after the usual interval (Against the Heathen, Book VII, Chapter 32).

Hislop believed that Arnobius was teaching against what became known as Lent (Two Babylons, p. 106). Perhaps it should be noted that in the late 2nd century, Tertullian also warned against "Christians" participating in events that also honored Minerva (please see the article Is January 1st a Date for Christians Celebrate?).

The Catholic Saint Abbot John Cassian (also known as Cassianus, monk of Marseilles) in the fifth century admitted:

Howbeit you should know that as long as the primitive church retained its perfection unbroken, this observance of Lent did not exist (Cassian John. Conference 21, THE FIRST CONFERENCE OF ABBOT THEONAS. ON THE RELAXATION DURING THE FIFTY DAYS. Chapter 30).

Notice that he admits that "the primitive church" did not keep Lent!

However, since the Bible says that one should examine themselves prior to taking the Passover symbols (1 Corinthians 11:27-29), some in the second century apparently on their own decided that a type of fast may be appropriate.

While sometimes people would fast for a day, others chose differing amounts of time, but generally they were stricter than Lenten fasts and lasted less than a week:

For the controversy is not only concerning the day, but also concerning the very manner of the fast. For some think that they should fast one day, others two, yet others more; some, moreover, count their day as consisting of forty hours day and night. And this variety in its observance has not originated in our time; but long before in that of our ancestors. It is likely that they did not hold to strict accuracy, and thus formed a custom for their posterity according to their own simplicity and peculiar mode (Irenaeus as cited by Eusebius. Church History, V, Verses 12-13).

Moreover, with the Easter festival there seems also to have established itself a preliminary fast, not as yet anywhere exceeding a week in duration, but very severe in character, which commemorated the Passion, or more generally, "the days on which the bridegroom was taken away". (Lent. The Catholic Encyclopedia).

The Days of Unleavened Bread were kept for a week in the Bible (and 8 days if you count that some was eaten on Passover).

When did the Church of Rome adopt forty-day fasts? That is a difficult question to know for certain, but it appears to have not been that consistent until the fourth or fifth centuries, and it was not uniform even there until later. Notice:

Be this as it may, we find in the early years of the fourth century the first mention of the term tessarakoste. It occurs in the fifth canon of the Council of Nicea (A.D. 325), where there is only question of the proper time for celebrating a synod, and it is conceivable that it may refer not to a period but to a definite festival, e.g., the Feast of the Ascension, or the Purification, which Ætheria calls quadragesimæ de Epiphania...In the time of Gregory the Great (590-604) there were apparently at Rome six weeks of six days each, making thirty-six fast days in all, which St. Gregory, who is followed therein by many medieval writers, describes as the spiritual tithing of the year, thirty-six days being approximately the tenth part of three hundred and sixty-five. At a later date the wish to realize the exact number of forty days led to the practice of beginning Lent upon our present Ash Wednesday... (Lent. The Catholic Encyclopedia).

The length of time for observing Lent varied through the ages. For many years, it was considered a 36-day period of fast. By the reign of Charlemagne, about A.D. 800, four days were added making it 40 (Ramm B. Lent. World Book Encyclopedia, 50th ed., Volume 12. Chicago, p. 175).

The term tessarakoste means fortieth and it is not clear that this had anything to do with what is now known as Lent in the early fourth century--though some type of forty-day fasts were being observed then. Into the fifth century, Rome apparently had a different length for fasting, and it took a while for forty-days to become somewhat standard:

Still, this principle was differently understood in different localities, and great divergences of practice were the result. In Rome, in the fifth century, Lent lasted six weeks, but according to the historian Socrates there were only three weeks of actual fasting, exclusive even then of the Saturday and Sunday and if Duchesne's view may be trusted, these weeks were not continuous, but were the first, the fourth, and sixth of the series, being connected with the ordinations...But the number forty, having once established itself, produced other modifications. It seemed to many necessary that there should not only be fasting during the forty days but forty actual fasting days. Thus we find Ætheria in her "Peregrinatio" speaking of a Lent of eight weeks in all observed at Jerusalem, which, remembering that both the Saturday and Sunday of ordinary weeks were exempt, gives five times eight, i.e., forty days for fasting. On the other hand, in many localities people were content to observe no more than a six weeks' period, sometimes, as at Milan, fasting only five days in the week after the oriental fashion (Ambrose, "De Elia et Jejunio", 10). In the time of Gregory the Great (590-604) there were apparently at Rome six weeks of six days each, making thirty-six fast days in all, which St. Gregory, who is followed therein by many medieval writers, describes as the spiritual tithing of the year, thirty-six days being approximately the tenth part of three hundred and sixty-five. At a later date the wish to realize the exact number of forty days led to the practice of beginning Lent upon our present Ash Wednesday, but the Church of Milan, even to this day adheres to the more primitive arrangement (Christian Worship, 243) (Lent. The Catholic Encyclopedia).

While the Bible does endorse that Christians should fast, no forty-day period is ever proscribed. Here is basically what Jesus Himself taught:

Then they said to Him, "Why do the disciples of John fast often and make prayers, and likewise those of the Pharisees, but Yours eat and drink?" And He said to them, "Can you make the friends of the bridegroom fast while the bridegroom is with them? But the days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them; then they will fast in those days" (Luke 5:33-36).

Thus apparently Christ's disciples did not fast much while Jesus was alive and would fast after He was to be taken away. However, as even Catholic scholars admit, there is no evidence that the apostles initiated any type of forty-day fast.

Where Did the Forty-Day Lenten Fast Come From?

Although the answer of this may not be entirely clear, there are some indications.

The Apostle Paul invoked keeping Passover and the Days of Unleavened Bread:

7 Therefore purge out the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, since you truly are unleavened. For indeed Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us. 8 Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. (1 Corinthians 5:7-8)

Thus, while the Apostle Paul specifically endorsed the observance of Passover and the Days of Unleavened Bread, he did not do so for something called Lent. Second century Church of God leaders such as Polycarp and Polycrates observed Passover and the Days of Unleavened Bread.

However, because the Days of Unleavened Bread involve a seven-day "fast" from leaven, it may be that some associated with Rome and Egypt felt that an abstinence period would be appropriate, but the amount of time varied.

Notice what the Catholic Socrates Scholasticus admitted around the beginning of the fifth century:

The fasts before Easter will be found to be differently observed among different people. Those at Rome fast three successive weeks before Easter, excepting Saturdays and Sundays. Those in Illyrica and all over Greece and Alexandria observe a fast of six weeks, which they term 'The forty days' fast.' Others commencing their fast from the seventh week before Easter, and fasting three five days only, and that at intervals, yet call that time 'The forty days' fast.' It is indeed surprising to me that thus differing in the number of days, they should both give it one common appellation; but some assign one reason for it, and others another, according to their several fancies. One can see also a disagreement about the manner of abstinence from food, as well as about the number of days. Some wholly abstain from things that have life: others feed on fish only of all living creatures: many together with fish, eat fowl also, saying that according to Moses, Genesis 1:20 these were likewise made out of the waters. Some abstain from eggs, and all kinds of fruits: others partake of dry bread only; still others eat not even this: while others having fasted till the ninth hour, afterwards take any sort of food without distinction. And among various nations there are other usages, for which innumerable reasons are assigned. Since however no one can produce a written command as an authority, it is evident that the apostles left each one to his own free will in the matter, to the end that each might perform what is good not by constraint or necessity. Such is the difference in the churches on the subject of fasts (Socrates Scholasticus. Ecclesiastical History, Volume V, Chapter 22).

Since the Babylonians took over the Greeks and the Egyptians, that may have been when they started this practice.

Notice:

But the original length of the fast, traced back to Babylon was a "forty-days" fast in the spring of the year (Laynard's Nineveh and Babylon, chapter 4, page 93). That is why it bore its name of "40 days"! (Hoeh, H. Did Jesus Observe Lent? Plain Truth. February 1982, p. 30).

It is likely that the idea of a forty-day fast came from Alexandria in Egypt or from Greece.

The historian Alexander Hislop apparently felt so as he wrote:

The forty days' abstinence of Lent was directly borrowed from the worshippers of the Babylonian goddess. Such a Lent of forty days, "in the spring of the year," is still observed by the Yezidis or Pagan Devil-worshippers of Koordistan, who have inherited it from their early masters, the Babylonians. Such a Lent of forty days was held in spring by the Pagan Mexicans, for thus we read in Humboldt, where he gives account of Mexican observances: "Three days after the vernal equinox...began a solemn fast of forty days in honour of the sun." Such a Lent of forty days was observed in Egypt, as may be seen on consulting Wilkinson's Egyptians. This Egyptian Lent of forty days, we are informed by Landseer, in his Sabean Researches, was held expressly in commemoration of Adonis or Osiris, the great mediatorial god. At the same time, the rape of Proserpine seems to have been commemorated, and in a similar manner; for Julius Firmicus informs us that, for "forty nights" the "wailing for Proserpine" continued; and from Arnobius we learn that the fast which the Pagans observed, called "Castus" or the "sacred" fast, was, by the Christians in his time, believed to have been primarily in imitation of the long fast of Ceres, when for many days she determinedly refused to eat on account of her "excess of sorrow," that is, on account of the loss of her daughter Proserpine, when carried away by Pluto...

Among the Pagans this Lent seems to have been an indispensable preliminary to the great annual festival in commemoration of the death and resurrection of Tammuz, which was celebrated by alternate weeping and rejoicing, and which, in many countries, was considerably later than the Christian festival, being observed in Palestine and Assyria in June, therefore called the "month of Tammuz"; in Egypt, about the middle of May, and in Britain, some time in April. To conciliate the Pagans to nominal Christianity, Rome, pursuing its usual policy, took measures to get the Christian and Pagan festivals amalgamated, and, by a complicated but skilful adjustment of the calendar, it was found no difficult matter, in general, to get Paganism and Christianity--now far sunk in idolatry--in this as in so many other things, to shake hands...

Let any one only read the atrocities that were commemorated during the "sacred fast" or Pagan Lent, as described by Arnobius and Clemens Alexandrinus, and surely he must blush for the Christianity of those who, with the full knowledge of all these abominations, "went down to Egypt for help" to stir up the languid devotion of the degenerate Church, and who could find no more excellent way to "revive" it, than by borrowing from so polluted a source; the absurdities and abominations connected with which the early Christian writers had held up to scorn. That Christians should ever think of introducing the Pagan abstinence of Lent was a sign of evil; it showed how low they had sunk, and it was also a cause of evil; it inevitably led to deeper degradation. Originally, even in Rome, Lent, with the preceding revelries of the Carnival, was entirely unknown; and even when fasting before the Christian Pasch was held to be necessary, it was by slow steps that, in this respect, it came to conform with the ritual of Paganism. What may have been the period of fasting in the Roman Church before sitting of the Nicene Council does not very clearly appear, but for a considerable period after that Council, we have distinct evidence that it did not exceed three weeks (Hislop A. Two Babylons. pp. 104-106).

Hence we see that the so-called Christian observance of Lent is apparently a continuation of widespread ancient pagan practices that were subtly incorporated into mainstream Christianity over the centuries.

It should be noted that the Bible condemns practices associated with pagan worship, such as those that involved Tammuz:

And He said to me, "Turn again, and you will see greater abominations that they are doing." So He brought me to the door of the north gate of the LORD's house; and to my dismay, women were sitting there weeping for Tammuz (Ezekiel 8:13-14).

Essentially, mourning for Tammuz could include fasting of some type for some time. Scholar tend to believe that Tammuz was related to Adonis or Osiris as the following commentary records:

Ezekiel 8:14-15

Then he brought me to the door of the gate of the LORD's house which was toward the north; and, behold, there sat women weeping for Tammuz.

Tammuz. This god can be traced back to the Sumerian Dumuzi, the god of the subterranean ocean and a shepherd deity, whose sister-consort, Inanna-Ishtar, descended into the lower world to bring him back to life. In his worship are similarities to that of Egyptian Osiris, the Canaanite Baal, and the Syrian Adonis. Gebal or Byblos, twenty-one miles north of Beirut, was the great seat of Adonis worship. The nightly death of the god, the god's dying before the touch of winter, or the vernal god's dying with the parched summer are variations on the theme of death and resurrection. Mourning for the god was followed by a celebration of resurrection (from The Wycliffe Bible Commentary, Electronic Database. Copyright (c) 1962 by Moody Press).

Notice that the mourning ended with the resurrection for Tammuz. This is essentially the same as fasting for forty days which ends with the pagan Easter celebration!

Since Ash Wednesday involves receiving ashes on one's forehead to begin the forty-day period of Lent, this may be related to the beginning of the mourning for the death of Tammuz. It may or not be relevant to note that Ishtar (pronounced about the same as "Easter") is also spelled as Ash-tar (not the connection to Ash Wednesday). An interesting coincidence, don't you think?

Also notice:

A Lent of forty days was observed by worshipers of the Babylonian Ishtar and by the worshipers of the great Egyptian meditorial god Adonis or Osiris...Among the pagans, this Lent period seems to have been an indispensable preliminary to the great annual (usually spring) festivals (Bacchiochi S. God's Festivals in Scripture and History, Part 1. Biblical Perspectices, Berrian Springs (MI), 1995, p. 108).

A Possible Connection to Mithras?

Here is what Tertullian of Carthage (in eastern Egypt) noted near the beginning of the third century:

Mithra there, (in the kingdom of Satan,) sets his marks on the foreheads of his soldiers (Tertullian. The Prescription against Heretics, Chapter 40. Translated by Peter Holmes, D.D., F.R.A.S.)

Payam Nabarz wrote in the 21st century:

Tertullian certainly writes that Mithras marks (signat) his soldiers on the forehead, but what 'sign'? Some writers have even speculated that this mark was the mark of the "Beast of Revelations," as the numerological value of the Sun is 666!...

Mithratic...initiates...would henceforth have the Sun Cross on their foreheads. The similarity to the cross of ashes made on the forehead on the Christian Ash Wednesday is striking. Some have suggested this to be an example of the early Christians borrowing from the Mithratic cult; others suggest that both cults were drawing upon the same prototype (Nabarz P. The mysteries of Mithras: the pagan belief that shaped the Christian world. Inner Traditions / Bear & Company, 2005, p. 36).

The 20th century writer Manly Hall wrote:

Candidates who successfully passed the Mithraic initiations were called Lions and were marked upon their foreheads with the Egyptian cross. (Manly P. Hall Manly P. Hall (Author), J. Augustus Knapp (Illustrator) The Secret Teachings of all Ages. Originally published 1926, reprint Wilder Publications, 2009, p. 45)

It appears that the idea of a cross on the forehead probably came from Egypt initially. Mithraism probably picked it up (there is some question about the exact mark on the forehead, but a type of cross seems to be the most likely). And sometime after the Church of Rome absobed some aspects of Mithraism, Ash Wednesday appeared.

Others have felt, however, that it was adopted from India, and then made it to Rome. Notice what Barbara Walker reported:

Ash Wednesday This allegedly Christian festival came from Roman paganism, which in turn took it from Vedic India. Ashes were considered the seed of the fire god Agni, with the power to absolve all sins...

At Rome's New Year Feast of Atonement in March, people wore sackcloth and bathed in ashes to atone for their sins. Then as now, New Year's Eve was a festival for eating, drinking, and sinning, on the theory that all sins would be wiped out the following day. As the dying god of March, Mars took his worshippers' sins in with him into death. Therefore the carnival fell on dies martis, the Day of Mars. In English, this was Tuesday, because Mars was associated with the Saxon god Tiw. In French the carnival day was called Mardis Gras, "Fat Tuesday," the merrymaking day before Ash Wednesday. (Walker B. The woman's encyclopedia of myths and secrets. HarperCollins, 1983, pp. 66-67).

And although Ash Wednesday is now normally in February, the aspect of penance from sins is still tied in with Ash Wednesday. And the merrymaking still exists in places that observe Mardi Gras or "Carnaval" (Mardi Gras: The Devil’s Carnival?).

Notice that the Apostle Paul warns against being involved in pagan observances (Catholic New Jerusalem Bible translations shown below):

14 Do not harness yourselves in an uneven team with unbelievers; how can uprightness and law-breaking be partners, or what can light and darkness have in common? 15 How can Christ come to an agreement with Beliar and what sharing can there be between a believer and an unbeliever? 16 The temple of God cannot compromise with false gods, and that is what we are -- the temple of the living God. (2 Corinthians 6:14-16, NJB)

19 What does this mean? That the dedication of food to false gods amounts to anything? Or that false gods themselves amount to anything? 20 No, it does not; simply that when pagans sacrifice, what is sacrificed by them is sacrificed to demons who are not God. I do not want you to share with demons. 21 You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons as well; you cannot have a share at the Lord's table and the demons' table as well. (1 Corinthians 10:19-21, NJB)

Whether from Egypt, Roman paganism, or India, the one place it did not come from was the Bible. Nor did it come from early traditions of the first followers of Jesus. An article of related interest may be Do You Practice Mithraism?

More on Carnival and Mardi Gras

According to Wikipedia:

Carnival begins 12 days after Christmas, or Twelfth Night, on January 6 and ends on Mardi Gras, which always falls exactly 47 days before Easter.

Perhaps the cities most famous for their Mardi Gras celebrations include New Orleans and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (two places I have never visited–as I have not been to Louisiana nor Brazil).

Here is one news item about it:

The Salt Lake Tribune - Jan 8, 2008

Although the origins of Carnaval are shrouded in mystery, some believe the fest began as a pagan celebrationof spring’s arrival sometime during the Middle Ages. The Portuguese brought the celebration to Brazil in the 1500s, but it took on a decidedly local flavor by adopting Indian costumes and African rhythms. The word itself probably derives from the Latin “carne vale,” or “goodbye meat,” a reference to the Catholic tradition of giving up meat (and other fleshly temptations) during Lent…

Rio’s first festivals were called entrudos, with locals dancing through the streets in colorful costumes and throwing mud, flour and suspicious-smelling liquids on one another. In the 19th century, Carnaval meant attending a lavish masked ball or participating in the orderly and rather vapid European-style parade. Rio’s poor citizens, bored by the finery but eager to celebrate, began holding their own parades, dancing through the streets to African-based rhythms…

…an event that happens annually in Brazil on the days leading up to Ash Wednesday. In 2008, Carnaval officially begins Friday, Feb. 1, when the mayor gives the keys to the city to King Momo, the portly pleasure-seeker who ushers in the bacchanalia. The next four days are marked by neighborhood parties, lavish masked balls and impromptu fests all over town (http://www.sltrib.com/travel/ci_7883824).

The origens of this are not a complete mystery as the sixth edition of the Columbia Encyclopedia:

Carnival communal celebration, especially the religious celebration in Catholic countries that takes place just before Lent.

Since early times carnivals have been accompanied by parades, masquerades, pageants, and other forms of revelry that had their origins in pre-Christian pagan rites, particularly fertility rites that were connected with the coming of spring and the rebirth of vegetation.

One of the first recorded instances of an annual spring festival is the festival of Osiris in Egypt; it commemorated the renewal of life brought about by the yearly flooding of the Nile. In Athens, during the 6th cent. BC, a yearly celebration in honor of the god Dionysus was the first recorded instance of the use of a float.

It was during the Roman Empire that carnivals reached an unparalleled peak of civil disorder and licentiousness. The major Roman carnivals were the Bacchanalia, the Saturnalia, and the Lupercalia. In Europe the tradition of spring fertility celebrations persisted well into Christian times, where carnivals reached their peak during the 14th and 15th cent.

Because carnivals are deeply rooted in pagan superstitions and the folklore of Europe, the Roman Catholic Church was unable to stamp them out and finally accepted many of them as part of church activity (http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1E1-carnival.html).

Essentially, this Mardi Gras is a pagan holiday that the Catholics adopted as a compromise to keep members. Participants eat a lot (hence the name “fat Tuesday”) before they begin a fast now called Lent–another observance with pagan origins as this article has shown. More information can be found in the article Mardi Gras: The Devil’s Carnival?

Because of Lent, Vatican Declared a Mammal a Fish

There is an interesting story related to Lent that someone sent me:

Giant Rodents A Lenten Dish

Sun Sentinel, Florida - March 18, 2003   excerpt...

About 400 years ago, Spanish missionaries discovered that some indigenous communities in Venezuela, Colombia and Brazil relied for much of their protein on the meat of the capybara, an animal that no European had seen before.

The missionaries reported back to Rome that they had encountered an animal that was hairy and scaly and spent more of its time in the water than on land. They asked whether their new converts could continue to eat capybara at Lent, a time when Catholics traditionally avoid meat.

With no clear idea of what the capybara was or looked like and concerned a ban would lead to indigenous communities starving during Lent, the Vatican immediately ruled that the semi-aquatic mammal was in fact a fish.

The tradition continues to this day, and eating capybara remains part of the Lenten tradition for many families, despite the fact that the giant rodent tastes like a cross between fish and lamb.

                                                                     http://articles.sun-sentinel.com/2003-03-18/news/0303170443_1_rodents-lenten-capybara

"In 1784 and after several attempts at obtaining a Vatican license, a Papal Bull (decree) allowed the consumption of capybara flesh during Lent..."

                 - Capybara: Biology, Use and Conservation of an Exceptional Neotropical Species,
                   by José Roberto Moreira, Katia Maria P.M.B., Springer Aug 15, 2012, page 307

 

Of course, the Vatican did not really know. But, I would add that biblically, capybaras are not some that Christians should eat as they do not meet the biblical criteria for 'clean' animals (see also The New Testament Church and Unclean Meats and/or watch the sermon length video Christians and Unclean Meats).

Many Protestants Observe Lent

Although it is essentially a Catholic holiday, many Protestants also observe and encourage the observation of Lent:

Steven R. Harmon, author of Ecumenism Means You, Too, Frederica Mathewes-Green, the author of The Jesus Prayer, and Michael Horton, author of The Gospel-Driven Life, suggest why Christians should care about Lent.

While Israel's neighbors celebrated the cycle of seasons as shadows of the realm of the gods, Israel celebrated the interventions of God in historical events of judgment and deliverance. The major feasts include Passover, Firstfruits (Pentecost), the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), and Tabernacles (Sukkot). In commanding these feasts, God was incorporating them into his unfolding drama, anchored in his promises and their future fulfillment in Christ.

Unlike the Old Testament, however, the New Testament does not prescribe a church calendar. Furthermore, Lent became associated in the medieval church with all sorts of rules and superstitions. For the most part, the Protestant Reformers continued to celebrate Lent, but in a more evangelical way. They inveighed against the connection between fasting and penance "as a work of merit or a form of divine worship," as Calvin put it. Lent is still celebrated today in Lutheran, Anglican, and many Reformed churches...

I believe an evangelical celebration of Lent affords an opportunity to reinforce rather than undermine the significance of Christ's person and work.

Lent is a 40-day preparation for the observance of Christ's passion and Easter. (Horton M. Lent—Why Bother? To Lead Us to Christ. Christianity Today, February 10, 2010. http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2010/february/15.55.html)

Let's Lengthen Lent...
...pre-Lenten festivals such as the Mardi Gras have turned into bacchanals that have become a reproach to civilization.So what do we do? Observe Lent or ignore it?...I hope to be in my church on Ash Wednesday as a worshiper. (http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2000/marchweb-only/34.0.html)

Lent...
Lent is one of the oldest observations on the Christian calendar. Like all Christian holy days and holidays, it has changed over the years...(http://www.christianitytoday.com/holidays/)

It is interesting that some Protestants understand that there actually is a "church calendar" in the Bible--but they misunderstand it and think it was somewhat done away for Christians (they may wish to read the article Is There "An Annual Worship Calendar" In the Bible?).

Of course, Lent does not come from the Bible. Nor was a forty-day Lenten fast the practice of the early Christian church. Certain Protestants are unknowingly admitting that they are relying on tradition and the authority of Rome (which they often claim does not exist) and not sola Scriptura for their observations.

Conclusion

Lent means Spring and the pagan practice of abstention for forty-days originally occured in the Spring, yet Lent is now mainly in the Winter--this strongly suggests a pagan connection--otherwise the practice would not be called Spring!

For now, let me simply reiterate that neither Lent nor Ash Wednesday was observed by the early church--this is admitted by Roman Catholic scholars and at least one Catholic saint. Nor was Easter for that matter--this is also admitted by Catholic scholars. Yet these observances seem to eventually have become common and then encouraged by the Roman Church and many others.

In the Spring of the year, the New Testament mentions biblical holy days, like Passover and the Days of Unleavened Bread (for early Spring) and Pentecost (for late Spring)--it also mentions that Jesus and/or His disciples observed all of those.

History records that they were also observed by early Christians and that Christians even today observe them. Some who professed Christ apparently thought compromise with non-biblical holidays would substitute for biblical ones like the Days of Unleavened Bread. Yet, the original practice of the earliest Christians were to observe Passover and the Days of Unleavened Bread.

Christians, like some of the observant Jews, purged their homes of leaven prior to to sunset on the 15th of Nisan. And Christians avoided leaven for those seven days. This is something that the Bible teaches and early Christians practiced.

Will you follow those who followed Christ or do you prefer later adaptations?

Should you observe what is taught in the Bible or rely of later traditions of men?

Thiel B., Ph.D. Is Lent a Christian Holiday? www.cogwriter.com/lent.htm 2007/2008/2010/2011/2013/2014 0305

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