Did the Apostles establish Lent?
Historians disagree on the claim that the apostles established Lent, pointing to a variety of observances in early Christianity.
Although it may seem like Lent has been around since the earliest days of Christianity, historians continue to debate whether the apostles themselves established the season of Lent.
For example, a book from the beginning of the 20th century, A Pulpit Commentary on Catholic Teachingargues that the Apostles established Lent.
Many great Fathers and Doctors of the Church say that the The apostles decreed that the great solemnity of Easter should be preceded by a universal fast and that in remembrance of Christ’s forty days of fasting in the desert, they instituted Lent.
However, at the same time, the authors of the book admit that there was no uniform way of observing Lent in the early Church.
Initially, there was no uniform way to observe it. But the faithful for forty days devote themselves to fasting and prayer in imitation of their Master. At first Christians adopted the same customs of fasting prescribed in the old law by which only one meal was allowed on fasting days and that after sunset.
This observation is further confirmed by Nicholas V. Russo in an article written for Baylor University.
A closer examination of ancient sources, however, reveals a more gradual historical development. Although fasting before Easter appears to have been ancient and widespread, the length of this fast varied greatly from place to place and from generation to generation. In the second half of the 2nd century, for example, Irenaeus of Lyons (in Gaul) and Tertullian (in North Africa) tell us that the preparatory fast lasted one or two days, i.e. forty hours– commemorating what was believed to be the exact length of Christ’s time in the tomb.
It is only at “Council of Nicaea in 325, is the duration of Lent fixed at forty days.”
Part of the reason behind a varied observance of Lent in the first three centuries of the Church is that Christians were often simply trying to survive and not get killed. Widespread persecution in the Roman Empire did not allow for universal liturgical seasons.
Although the Apostles may not have established Lent as we know it, they probably observed a period of intense preparation before Easter, following Jesus’ example of fasting and prayer.