Think Lent is Tough? Think Again
Today’s Latin Catholics would be well-served to review the norms of early Christians as they prepared for Easter.
Lent today to many is giving up Dr. Pepper. Maybe taking a Dr. Pepper zero instead of a regular Dr. Pepper, or giving up Chocolate. However, this is not what Lent was by any stretch of the imagination. The following article explains what Lent was like almost 1000 years ago. What it does not explain is that for the first 400 to 500 years Lent was practiced very differently in many places all over the world. The standardization of Lent, although it began at the Council of Nicea in 325, doesn’t take a more formal form until St. Gregory, the Pope who added days to Lent, and then most major changes took place in the 11th century.
The Lenten fast for Latin Catholics living in the years of the third millennium of Christianity often means swapping out the lunchtime burger for a Filet-o-Fish and attending Stations of the Cross sporadically. It also means getting Ashes on Ash Wednesday and attendance of service on Easter.
But the Church has, up to the time of major reforms in the 1960s, encouraged its children to not do the bare minimum, but to immerse themselves in the spirit of Lenten penance.
The requirements and practices during the first millennium after Our Lord were extraordinarily stringent by today’s terms, having been relaxed bit by bit until they are almost nonexistent today. Archbishop Lefebvre noted this in a letter written to faithful in 1982:
The faithful who have a true spirit of faith and who profoundly understand the motives of the Church…will wholeheartedly accomplish not only the light prescriptions of today but, entering into the spirit of Our Lord and of the Blessed Virgin Mary, will endeavor to make reparation for the sins which they have committed and for the sins of their family, their neighbors, friends, and fellow citizens."
Today, only the Eastern Christian Churches (many of which are not in communion with Rome) and Eastern Catholic Churches practice austerity during Lent, albeit unevenly. For instance, meat, fish, dairy, and oil are generally prohibited during the Lenten season, though there are few restrictions on the amount of Lenten-approved food that may be consumed. Moreover, certain fasting disciplines are subject to regional practice and cultural variations with local priests and bishops having a more direct say in offering dispensations for those entrusted to their care.
Black Fasts and Watery Beer
We can learn much from our Latin ancestors’ observance of the Lenten Quadragesima and perhaps follow their example; if not entirely in practice, at least in spirit, as recommended by the Archbishop. In a recent post on his site, Dr. Taylor Marshall, a former Episcopalian priest who is now Catholic, collected the rules for Lenten penance as described by St. Thomas Aquinas:
Ash Wednesday and Good Friday were “black fasts.” These consisted of taking only one meal per day of bread, water, and herbs, after sunset.
Other days of Lent: no food until 3pm, the hour of Our Lord’s death. Water was allowed, and as was the case for the time due to sanitary concerns, watered-down beer and wine. After the advent of tea and coffee, these beverages were permitted.
No animal meats or fats.
No dairy products (lacticinia) – that is, eggs, milk, cheese, cream, butter, etc.
Sundays were days of less liturgical discipline, but the fasting rules above remained.
Could you follow these rules? If you could not, why? Do you believe that Lent is an important part of the Easter Season? If you believe that then maybe we should consider doing a more aggressive fast for this Lenten season.