It was the commonly held belief that the forty-day duration of Lent was tied with the forty days fasting of our Lord (Mt 4:2; Mk1:12; Lk 4:2); the forty day fast of Moses on Mount Sinai (Ex 24:18) and the forty day fast of Elijah on Mount Horeb (I Kgs 19:8). However, the bearing of these biblical insights upon Lent came much later.
In the early Church, when Christians started to form their own traditions as to the ones inherited from the Hebrew faith, there was no forty days of fasting but only a strict fast on Good Friday. This day long fast must be of Apostolic origin but not all kept it in the same way; some fasted the whole day and others the whole of the forty hours keeping the time during which our Lord was buried. Writing in the 3rd century, Eusebius calls this fast an ancient and established custom (Eusebius V, 24, 12-13). This is confirmed by Tertullian (De ieiunio 2,13), the Traditio Apostolica (33) and in the Didascalia Apostolorum ([v. 18] Therefore you shall fast in the days of the Pascha from the tenth, which is the second day of the week; and you shall sustain yourselves with bread and salt and water only, at the ninth hour, until the fifth day of the week. But on the Friday and on the Sabbath fast wholly, and taste nothing.)
After the persecutions, the Church embarked upon a penitential season in preparation for the Triduum Sacrum, but it was not a jump from one day to forty. There are writings that differ between the great fast of Easter and other fasting days during the year. In the festal letters of St Athanasius we can trace the fourth century development of Lent and in his last letters (AD 347) he writes that those who do not keep the Lenten fast should not be allowed to join in the Easter celebrations! The Ordinary time fasting took place every Wednesday and Friday as on Wednesday Jesus was betrayed and on Friday he suffered (Didache).
During the fourth and fifth centuries, the forty days ended on Holy (Spy) Wednesday and therefore Lent commenced on the sixth Sunday before Easter. As on Sundays it was always forbidden for Christians to fast the Lenten fast became less than days. That is why in the 8th and 9th centuries the days were extended by four to meet the biblical forty, and thus the start of Lent on Ash Wednesday. The discipline and regulations of fasting differed from country to country and from time to time. Nowadays for Catholics the two days of obligation are Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, however, the Church calls us to consider ways of keeping Lent as a penitential season and we are encouraged once more to fast and abstain on Fridays in Lent.
When the Church was free from persecutions, especially during the fourth and fifth centuries, liturgical organisation took place; this was also true for the season of Lent. Throughout the year in the fourth century Mass was only celebrated on Sundays, whilst every Wednesday and Friday Christians kept a Statio, a form of what we now call Liturgy of the Word. However, in North Africa the Mass was introduced on those days, a custom which quickly spread to Rome with a procession kept to a specific Church hence the stational churches and masses. At the time of Pope St Leo the Great Mass in Rome was celebrated every Monday, Wednesday and Friday in Lent apart from Sundays. By the time of Pope Gregory II (+731) Mass was being celebrated every day in Lent.
Lent became a penitential season in preparation for the Triduum Sacrum and also as an intense time of formation for those to be baptised on the Easter Vigil or reconciled with the Church on Maundy Thursday. The call for conversion is there from the very first day of Lent, Ash Wednesday, the blessing and imposition of Ashes being mentioned for the first time in the eleventh century.
So here we stand at the gateway of another Lent offered to us; a time of grace, penitence and prayer. Fasting and public prayer are the tools at our disposal to keep a Holy Lent. For those of us joining the Ordinariate we tread in the footsteps of so many before us who in this holy season prepared to be reconciled with Holy Mother Church. From tomorrow we start a Eucharistic fast meant to consume our hearts with desire to receive our Lord in the Triduum Sacrum and so be reconciled with the Catholic Church. May it truly be for all of us a special and holy time.