Search the scriptures diligently, from Old Testament to New, and you will find no mention of Jews or Christians observing an annual period of 40 days of fasting and abstinence preceding the festival of the Passover, yet today most of the Christian world observes a 40 day period called Lent, which precedes the festival of Easter Sunday. A period of 40 days is rather common in scripture, however:
It rained 40 days and nights: Gen 7:4, 12.
Forty days after sighting the tops of the mountains, Noah set forth a raven and a dove: Gen 8:6-7.
Joseph mourned the death of his father Jacob for a period of 40 days: Gen 49:33 - Gen 50:3.
Moses on Sinai for 40 days: Exo 24:18, 34:28, Deu 9:9-11.
Moses pleads for Israel 40 days on Sinai: Deu 9:18-25, 10:10.
Canaan spied on for 40 days: Num 13:25, 14:34.
Goliath taunted Israel for 40 days: 1 Sam 17:16.
Elijah fasted and journeyed to Horeb for 40 days: 1 Kings 19:8.
Ezekiel bore the iniquity of Judah for 40 days: Eze 4:6.
Jonah warned Nineveh of judgment in 40 days: Jonah 3:4.
Jesus fasted in the wilderness for 40 days: Matt 4:2, Mark 1:13, Luke 4:2.
Jesus was seen for 40 days after His crucifixion: Acts 1:3.
So, if the Bible does not enjoin the Jew or the Christian to observe the 40 day period called Lent, then what is its origin? Can the answer be found in the Catholic Church?
540... "For we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sinning" [Heb 4:15]. By the solemn forty days of Lent the Church unites herself each year to the mystery of Jesus in the desert.
Source: The Catechism of the Catholic Church, copyright 1994 by the United States Catholic Conference, Inc., published by Liquori Publications.
Lent is the 40-day period (Sundays excluded) prior to Easter, which the church observes as a penitential season. It begins on Ash Wednesday (which can occur any time between February 4 and March 11, depending upon the date of Easter), and it concludes with the Passiontide, the two-week period during which the church's liturgy follows Christ's activity closely through the final stages of his life on earth. These two weeks are called Passion Week and Holy Week. It was once claimed that the Lenten practice was of apostolic origin, but historians fix its establishment at a later date, probably the 5th century. Catholics are required to fast and are urged to adopt other penitential modes during the season.
The Catholic Fact Book, copyright 1986 by John Deedy, published by Thomas More Press, page 360.
Lent is the period of six and one half weeks from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday. During Lent, for 40 days, excluding Sundays, fasting is recommended for all Catholics according to the laws of fast. This is reminiscent of the 40 days of our Lord's unbroken fast (Mt. 4:3-4). The entire period of Lent is also a time of spiritual preparation for the passion, death, and resurrection of Christ. It is observed as a time of penitence other than fasting, and as a time of prayer. The Liturgy of the Church reflects the significance of this period of spiritual preparation: each day has a special Mass assigned to it; those Masses date back to the seventh and eighth centuries; there are no feasts observed on Sundays; purple vestments are the daily color...
It [Ash Wednesday] was established as the first day of Lent by [Pope] St. Gregory the Great (590 to 604).
Source: The Catholic Encyclopedia, revised and updated, edited by Robert Broderick, copyright 1987, published by Thomas Nelson Publishers
The reasons for celebrating our major feasts when we do are many and varied. In general, however, it is true that many of them have at least an indirect connection with the pre-Christian [pagan] feasts celebrated about the same time of year — feasts centering around the harvest, the rebirth of the sun at the winter solstice (now Dec. 21, but Dec. 25 in the old Julian calendar), the renewal of nature in spring, and so on.
Source: The New Question Box - Catholic Life for the Nineties, copyright 1988 by John J. Dietzen, M.A., S.T.L., ISBN 0-940518-01-5 (paperback), published by Guildhall Publishers, Peoria Illinois, 61651., page 554.
The observance of Lent dates back to the Apostles.
MYTH ... In the fifth century, some Fathers claimed that Lent was of apostolic institution, but the claim is doubtful. From the earliest Christian times everyone agreed that a penitential season should precede the solemnities of Easter, but for at least three centuries there was no agreement over how long that should be. Saint Irenaeus, writing around the year 190, clued to the diversity of opinion, saying: "some think they ought to fast for one day, others for two days, and others even for several, while other reckon forty hours both of day and night to their fast." Apparently he knew nothing about any Lent or pre-Easter fast of forty days, else he would have mentioned it.
In the fourth century Saint Athanasius enjoined the people of Alexandria to observe a forty day period of fasting prior to Easter, indicating that this was the mode now practiced throughout Christendom." ... [W]hile 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 pleasure in those days." Athanasius wrote. The year was 339, and Athanasius was recently back from a trip to Europe, including Rome.
Some sources allege that the forty-day Lent was not known in the West until the time of Saint Ambrose (c339-397). The date of Athanasius' letter would seem to negate that theory.
So, no, our Lent does not date from the time of the Apostles. But apparently it was observed before the year 339. That's early enough.
Source: Facts, Myths & Maybes (Everything You Think You Know About Catholicism But Perhaps Don't), by John Deedy, copyright 1993, published by Thomas More Press, page 235.
All About Lent by James Aiken
So according to Catholics, Lent is derived from the 40 days Jesus spent fasting in the wilderness, but it is admitted that the observance of Lent was unknown to the disciples and it did not find its way into the church until several centuries after the time of Christ. It should be noted that the 40 days of fasting in the wilderness preceded the earthly ministry of Jesus, which lasted some three and a half years, and was not connected in any way to His crucifixion or the Passover.
Note that Lent is a moveable observance, connected to and preceding the festival of Easter. Easter is celebrated on a day specified only by the Roman Catholic Church, and not the Bible, and is fixed based on the sun and the Spring or Vernal equinox.
Continue on to the Celebrating the Risen Sun