I recently did an hour-long radio interview on the practice of Lent on Catholic Answers radio, the podcast of which can be heard here. I'm not going to try to reproduce all I said there in this post.
In addition, to that interview I can also mention some helpful resources. For a great overview of some of the issues relating to Lent, see this fine piece by Jimmy Akin. I'd also highly recommend the excellent article from the Catholic Encyclopedia which is available for free over at inimitable NewAdvent.org. In addition, my good friend Taylor Marshall has a helpful overview of the day's fast prescriptions on his site.
Here I wanted to just touch on a few issues.
The Antiquity of the Pre-Easter Fast
One thing that should be underscored is that the observance of a pre-Easter period of penance has deep roots in the early Church. Eusebius records a letter written by Irenaeus (2nd cent.) to the bishop of Rome, Victor I, in which he talks about the fact that there was controversy in the early Church as to how "the fast" should be celebrated. Note that while there was a debate about how long exactly "the fast" should be practiced, there was apparently no question in any one's mind that there should be some sort of period of penance prior to the annual celebration of the Lord's death and resurrection. Irenaeus also testifies to the antiquity of this practice.
"For the controversy is not only concerning the day, but also concerning the very manner of the fast. For some think that they should fast one day, others two, yet others more; some, moreover, count their day as consisting of forty hours day and night. 13. And this variety in its observance has not originated in our time; but long before in that of our ancestors. It is likely that they did not hold to strict accuracy, and thus formed a custom for their posterity according to their own simplicity and peculiar mode. Yet all of these lived none the less in peace, and we also live in peace with one another; and the disagreement in regard to the fast confirms the agreement in the faith" (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 5, 24, 12).Jesus' Expectation that His Disciples Would Fast
Why did the practice emerge? Well, I explain the logic of penance in greater detail in my interview, but suffice it to say, it is important to point out that according to the Gospels Jesus himself clearly expected his own followers to fast:
And when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 17 But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, 18 that your fasting may not be seen by men but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matt 6:16-18)Notice that Jesus assumes that his followers would fast. In fact, as the second episode recounted above indicates, the idea that someone would not fast would have been unthinkable to an ancient Jew.
Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting; and people came and said to him, “Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” 19 And Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. 20 The days will come, when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day. (Mark 2:18-20)
The Torah's Command to "Afflict Yourselves"
Indeed, the practice of fasting and of "afflicting oneself" in penance has deep roots in the Old Testament and Judaism.
Such practices were especially associated with Yom Kippur:
And it shall be a statute to you for ever that in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall afflict yourselves, and shall do no work, either the native or the stranger who sojourns among you; 30 for on this day shall atonement be made for you, to cleanse you; from all your sins you shall be clean before the Lord. 31 It is a sabbath of solemn rest to you, and you shall afflict yourselves; it is a statute for ever. (Lev 16:29-30)
The reference here is obviously to penitential self-denial, especially abstinence from food, e.g., fasting. That this is how this passage was understood is abundantly clear when one reads the Mishna. The rabbis explain: "On the Day of Atonement, eating, drinking, washing, anointing, putting on sandals, and marital intercourse are forbidden" (m. Yoma 8:1).
Not a "No" but a "Yes"
Not a "No" but a "Yes"
Finally, as I explained in the interview I linked to above, Lent is NOT about simply saying "No"--it's about saying "Yes". If Lent is simply understood in terms of a dour season or as a kind of spiritual "ultimate challenge" (e.g., an attempt at some ridiculously difficult penance for the sake of accomplishment), one would miss the whole point of the season.
Lent is about saying "Yes"--yes to loving God with all that we have and all that we are. True, this does involve saying "no" to certain things we may be attached to, but more than anything else, it is a "yes"--a yes to refusing to "gratify the desires of the flesh" (cf. Gal 5:15), in order to live a life more devoted to Christ our Lord.
I always turn to the story of Jesus and the rich young man as an example of the need for us to learn self-denial. I'll leave you with these thoughts: