Prior to A.D. 324 and Constantine’s undisputed claim to rule over the whole Roman Empire, Christians were often killed in the empire. Between the death of Christ around A.D. 33 and Constantius Chlorus, Constantine’s father, becoming Caesar of the Western Roman Empire in A.D. 293, Christians were persecuted throughout the empire.
It was not a great recruitment strategy: “Accept Christ, Be Food For the Lions!” They had to do something to persuade people that Christ was real, Christianity was the true religion and persecution in this existence was nothing compared to eternal life with Christ.
Noah had spent 40 days on the ark and Christ had spent 40 days in the wilderness. The early church decided to take 40 days to educate would be believers. This was before wide circulation of the Gospels. In some cases, churches had copies of Paul’s letters before the Gospel. Mark wrote Peter’s account possibly around A.D. 40, though some put it after A.D. 70. There is consensus that John wrote his Gospel letter around A.D. 90, well after Paul’s letters had been circulating. But no one had yet put them all together. They used mostly the Old Testament and the book of Isaiah to teach new Christians.
The 40 day period happened in the run up to Easter. The earliest creeds, including the Roman Creed that evolved into the Apostle’s Creed, became a chief instrument of teaching. Each line became a point of study over the 40 days. “I believe in God the Father Almighty” would be studied for a week. “And in Christ Jesus His only Son, our Lord” would be the next week and so on. The Roman Creed, which left out the descent into hell, but otherwise was the basic Apostle’s Creed, became a foundation of faith. By about A.D. 200, the creed was fully in the form we have today.
New Christians would study what the creed meant, relying on the oral histories spread through the church and, within about one hundred years of Christ’s death, the letters being passed around that were from Peter, John, Paul, Matthew, Jude, James, etc. After the 40 day period, if the new Christian wanted to join still, despite the persecution, they would be baptized on Easter and welcomed in as a brother or sister.
All that changed in A.D. 324. Constantine embraced the faith, united the Roman Empire and ended persecution. Suddenly, the great troubles went away and anyone could become a Christian. In fact, many claimed to be just to have access to the emperor. Some, without persecution, wanted to show their true commitment to the faith. They abandoned their urban existence, sold their possessions and lived as hermits in the wilderness living like Christ did for those 40 days. They were called “monachos,” or monks.
The church itself kept that 40 day period and called it the “Quadragesima,” meaning 40th. As the traditions of Christianity spread north into Germanic speaking territories, the Quadragesima became associated with spring time, when the season of study and baptism occurred. The Germans called this season “Lenz” and it evolved into Old English and Dutch as the Lenten season, or Lent.
Though many American protestant denominations do not actively practice Lent in the way Catholics do, it is worth remembering where it comes from. The early church, before Bibles and book publishing, needed converts to know their faith and honestly commit to it. Given the shallowness of most American Christianity these days, perhaps it is worth considering.
Erick Erickson is host of Atlanta’s Evening News on WSB Radio.