Did the Blessed Virgin Mary keep Lent? Did the Apostles keep Lent?

Did the Blessed Virgin Mary keep Lent? Did the Apostles keep Lent? How far back does Lent go in Catholic tradition?

Apostles and Mary

One of the earliest references to Lent is found in Pope Leo the Great’s (d. 461) sermons from the fifth century. Pope Saint Leo the Great 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.

Nowadays, modern historians cast doubt on the practice of Lent in the first century.

The writings of Eusebius are often cited as proof that the early Church was entirely ignorant of what we call Lent. Eusebius, in his Church History (5, 24), relates an epistle of Saint Irenaeus to Pope Saint 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 Easter (either Nisan [name of Syrian month] 14th or the Sunday after Nisah the 14th), 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 Easter.

My take on it all:

I’ll lay my cards on the table. I think the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Apostles did keep the forty days of Lent just as Saint Jerome and Pope Saint Leo claimed. “But Taylor, what about that damning quote from Eusebius?!”

First, Saint Jerome and Saint Leo would have know about that quote. Eusebius’ account of history was well known. It didn’t stop them from claiming that the earliest Christians keep a forty day fast prior to Pascha/Easter.

The Apostles 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. Eusebius is here speaking about the “strict fast” prior to Easter – not the 40 day season of preparation. We should not confuse the two.

Of course, we cannot go back in time with a camcorder and find out for sure. However, we do have the testimony of great saints who were closer to the events (Athanasius, Jerome, Council of Nicea, Gregory the Great). As should be the case for all Catholics, when in doubt, go with the Church Fathers!

For those interested, both Maria de Agreda and Ann Catherine Emmerich describe the Blessed Virgin Mary keeping a forty fast. These are private revelations, but I wanted to throw them out there.

Question:  Does it matter whether Mary and the Apostles kept Lent? I think it does. Please leave a comment and share your thoughts. You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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  • Dr. Eric

    The Old Catholic Encyclopedia disagrees. And, since we know that the early Church didn’t even celebrate Easter on the same day depending on the area. I think. The quote from Eusebius shows that Lent took about 300 years to get started and it still isn’t celebrated the same way everywhere.

    • Dr. Eric

      iPad jumbled the sentence, it should read: “I think the quote from Eusebius shows that…”

    • Catholic Encyclopedia vs. Leo the Great…

      • SayMeGrandma2

        I’ll take Leo …

  • Victor

    Probably the important thing is we do something in fasting for lent, it’s a challenge in our ‘land of plenty’.

  • Spinmamma

    I think it is a good practice and spiritually helpful. It does not matter to me at all if the apostles kept the 40-day practice of remembrance and fasting. They lived the Passion and its aftermath. As we move further and further in time away from the actual events, this practice helps keep them real to modern Catholics.

  • Gary Adrian

    I know that for writers on history, the only way to get read extensively is usually to claim something that will create buzz. Kind of like how the media likes to mostly cover the bad events or controversial issues because as the the Bible says, ‘people love to have their ears tickled’ with this every new teaching. (It is important to note that the Bible makes this out to be a bad thing.)

    The only important thing is that our Holy Mother Church found that with the guidance of Holy Spirit that a 40 day fast was an apt way of preparing for and being a part of our Lords suffering and sacrifice. I have been reading Meditations on Lent by Thomas Aquinas and have found a whole new insight into Lent and how important our penitential fasting is to our spiritual development.

    May we all take advantage of this spiritual gift our Mother has given us.

  • I think it unimportant whether they did or not. Why do you think it’s important, Dr Marshall?

    I don’t think either the Cath Enc or Pope Leo are infallible on matters of history like this. Isn’t preference for Pope Leo’s claims on history a form of ad hominem argument – he’s pope / he’s more ancient, so his authority must count more than Cath Enc? Cath Enc may be a more scholarly source; on the other hand it may have been influenced by the modern doubting of some aspects of Christian history that (currently, perhaps not so in the past) lack primary / early sources, while Pope Leo may (or may not) have had access to lost early sources, but is more likely to have had them than Cath Enc. The Eusebius argument, I think, is adequately refuted above, so we are left with no evidence that I know of that the Apostles didn’t institute a pre-Easter fast of 40ish days. Primary evidence, or at least early evidence, seems lacking. 400s AD is a bit late for me to take as early.

    Could Pope Leo’s use of “apostolic” simply be the same as modern popes’ “Apostolic” Letters? I.e. referring to a more recent, but still papal or episcopal, origin of the event/practice? Probably not … probably too early for such usage.

    Today we have at least three different starting dates for Lent between the Churches in communion with Pope Francis (ignoring any use of the Julian / Reformed Gregorian calendars). Back then we had at least two different dates for Easter – and both sides of the Quartodeciman debate claimed Apostolic origins, and I doubt neither claim. Perhaps both sides had a 40-day fast.

    I see no reason to either doubt or believe something we don’t really know. It may have benefits in the apologetics arena to say Lent isn’t pagan in origin, but for me it’s too flimsy and serves better as a pious belief.

  • TomD

    “…but Christians also debated as to whether the preceding fast should be for one day, two days, or forty hours”
    Arguably this refers not to Lent but to the fast we now observe on Good Friday.

    • TomD

      Ah, if I read more carefully I’d have seen this is Dr Taylor’s take also. Mea culpa.

  • Diane

    I found this explanation for Lent on Catholic Answers:
    The reason Lent lasts 40 days is that 40 is the traditional number of judgment and spiritual testing in the Bible (Gn 7:4, Ex 24:18, 34:28, Nm 13:25, 14:33, Jon 3:4). Lent bears particular relationship to the 40 days Christ spent fasting in the desert before entering into his public ministry (Mt 4:1-11). Catholics imitate Christ by spending 40 days in spiritual discipline before the celebration of Christ’s triumph over sin and death.

    Fasting is a biblical discipline that can be defended from both the Old and the New Testament. Christ expected his disciples to fast (Mt 9:14-15) and issued instructions for how they should do so (Mt 6:16-18). Catholics follow this pattern by holding a partial fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.

    Abstinence from certain foods is also a biblical discipline. In Daniel 10:2-3 we read, “In those days I, Daniel, was mourning for three weeks. I ate no delicacies, no meat or wine entered my mouth, nor did I anoint myself at all, for the full three weeks.” Catholics use a practice similar to Daniel’s when, as a way of commemorating Christ’s Crucifixion on a Friday, they abstain from eating meat on that day of the week during Lent. The only kind of flesh they eat on Friday is fish, which is a symbol of Christ.

    Even the Ash Wednesday practice of having one’s forehead signed with ashes has a biblical parallel. Putting ashes on one’s head was a common biblical expression of mourning (1 Sm 13:19, Est 4:1, Is 61:3; see also Est 4:3, Jer 6:26, Ez 27:30, Dn 9:3, Mt 11:21, Lk 10:13). By having the sign of the cross made with ashes on their foreheads, Catholics mourn Christ’s suffering on the cross and their own sins, which made that suffering necessary.

  • Patsy Koenig

    Dr. Marshall, thank you for sharing that historical information. I think it is very profound that the Apostles and the Blessed Virgin Mary observed the Lenten penance time. Though, of course, it is not a make or break issue, since diciplines can be added or subtracted. I also greatly value what the mystics and visionaries report; as prophecy is a gift from God. And St. Paul instructs us to pay attention to it.

  • Bill Rudolph

    Thank you Dr. Marshall. And thanks for the great comments.

  • T.A.George

    In the syro Malabar Catholic Rite the lent is for 50 days can you throw some details on it,

  • Patti Day

    Simply, if Mary and the apostles knew that Jesus had fasted for forty days in the desert, and of course they did know, then I believe that they too would have chosen to do so in imitation of Christ.

  • Victor

    (((Of course, we cannot go back in time with a camcorder and find out for sure. However, we do have the testimony of great saints who were closer to the events (Athanasius, Jerome, Council of Nicea, Gregory the Great). As should be the case for all Catholics, when in doubt, go with the Church Fathers!)))

    Well said Doctor Marshall!

    There’s so much more that I wanted to say but instead I believe that I’ll do a little fasting and simply keep my mouth shut instead. 🙂

    God Bless and Happy Lent

  • Steven Cornett

    Could Ireneus’ comment about the length of the preceding fast before Easter be about the whether one abstained from food during the time from Holy Thursday to the Easter Divine Liturgy, which is typically held at midnight Easter Sunday?

    If that’s the case, then maybe the reason Lent wasn’t mention is that, being up to the day before Palm Sunday, it wasn’t controversial. That is, people don’t send letters about what everyone agrees about.