IT IS WELL KNOWN that Lent originated as a period of preparation for the observance of the Paschal festival at Easter. Since this was the main occasion for the Baptism of new converts, Lent quickly acquired the character of a final intensive period of training for those catechumens who were to be baptized at the coming Easter.

For them the emphasis fell on repentance for past sins, the renunciation of evil (including a series of exorcisms), and particularly on learning and understanding the Christian faith as expressed in the Creed. Only later did Lent come also to be used as a period of repentance for those who had been temporarily excluded from communion and who were to be readmitted at Easter.

The parallel that came to be drawn with our Lord’s period of forty days in the wilderness after his Baptism, fasting and wrestling with temptation, was also a secondary development. From addresses which have survived, particularly those of Cyril of Jerusalem and Theodore of Mopsuestia, it is clear that a major part of the training of the catechumens during Lent was the text and meaning of the Creed, in essentially the form we know as the Nicene Creed.

These addresses were often attended also by many of those who were already baptized and regular communicants as a kind of “refresher course”. They thus afforded the opportunity of an annual basic course of instruction in the faith, presented in a systematic way and not piecemeal in connection with the festivals of the Church or the vagaries of the lectionary.

Arthur Middleton is Rector of Boldon in the diocese of Durham, and tutor of St Chad’s College, Durham.