While fasting before Easter seems to have been ancient and widespread, the length of that fast varied significantly from place to place and across generations. In the latter half of the second century, for instance, Irenaeus of Lyons (in Gaul) and Tertullian (in North
Africa) tell us that the preparatory fast lasted one or two days, or forty
hours—commemorating what was believed to be the exact duration of
Christ’s time in the tomb. By the mid-third century, Dionysius of Alexandria
speaks of a fast of up to six days practiced by the devout in his see; and the
Byzantine historian Socrates relates that the Christians of Rome at some
point kept a fast of three weeks. However, the variation in the observance did not originate in our own day, but very much earlier, in the time of our forefathers" (Eusebius, History of the Church, V, 24). St. Irenaeus (d. 203) wrote to Pope St. Victor I, commenting on the celebration of Easter and the differences between practices in the East and the West: “The dispute is not only about the day, but also about the actual character of the fast. Some think that they ought to fast for one day, some for two, others for still more; some make their ‘day’ last 40 hours on end.” When Rufinus translated the relevant passage from Greek into Latin, the punctuation made between “40” and “hours” made the meaning to appear to be “40 days, twenty-four hours a day.” The importance of the passage, nevertheless, remains that since the time of “our forefathers” — always an expression for the apostles — a 40-day period of Lenten preparation existed. However, the actual practices and duration of Lent were still not homogenous throughout the Church. Only following the Council of Nicea in 325 a.d. did the length of Lent become fixed at forty days, and then only nominally.