In a previous post, we looked at the biblical significance of Lent as it relates to the number “forty” as a penitential sign of fasting and prayer (see: Lent: Why Forty Days?). Today we turn to a new topic: Did the Twelve Apostles Keep Lent?
Pope Saint Leo the Great (d. 461) maintained that the forty days of Lent were instituted by the Apostles:
“ut apostolica institutio quadraginta dierum jejuniis impleatur.”
(Patrologia Latina 54, 633)
“That the Apostolic institution of forty days might be fulfilled by fasting.”
St. Jerome (d. 420) and the church historian Socrates (d. 433) also assumed the apostolic institution of the forty days of fasting before the celebration of Christ’s resurrection.
However, the “forty days” is difficult to maintain when we examine Eusebius‘ Church History (5, 24) in which he preserves an epistle of St. Irenaeus to Pope St. Victor (reigned from A.D. 189 to 199) in connection with the Paschal (Easter) controversy of the second century. Not only was there confusion about the date of the Christian Pascha (either Nisan 14 or Sunday thereafter), but Christians also debated as to whether the preceding fast should be for one day, two days, or forty hours. It seems that neither the Roman Christians nor the Eastern Christians knew of a “forty day” fast before Pascha.
Nevertheless, by the fourth century, the “forty days” of fasting prior to Pascha seem to be universally observed. St. Athanasius‘ Paschal letter for A.D. 331 reports that all the Christian of Alexandria, Egypt keep a “forty day” fast prior to Pascha/Easter. In his Paschal letter for A.D. 339, he mentions how the “forty day” fast prior to Pascha/Easter is universally kept by all the Churches: “to the end that while all the world is fasting, we who are in Egypt should not become a laughing-stock as the only people who do not fast but take our pleasure in those days.”
The fifth canon of the Council of Nicea in A.D. 325 also confirms that “forty days” are kept as days of penance prior to Pascha.
My opinion is this. The Apostle instituted a strict fast to be kept for “the day on which the bridegroom was taken away” (Lk 5:35) – the day that we call Good Friday. The “forty hour” tradition mentioned by Irenaeus likely refers to the estimated time that Christ was in the tomb (3pm Friday till sometime before light on Sunday). Consequently, the apostolic fast began on what we call Good Friday and ended on Easter.
Hence, second century Christians believed that there was a special fast immediately before the commemoration of Christ’s Resurrection, but the forty day tradition probably developed later. However, I think it is safe to say that a pre-Easter fast is of “apostolic institution,” since it is already universally assumed by the 180s.