How many days are there in Lent? We all know that – it’s 40. Or is it? Lent starts on Ash Wednesday. There are four days before the First Sunday of Lent, then six weeks of Lent. That gives 46 days, not 40. But Sundays don’t count, so if we take off the six Sundays, we’re back to 40.
The trouble is, Lent really ends with Mass of the Lord’s Supper on the evening of Maundy Thursday, so now we’re down to just 38 days. Does it matter?
What is Lent?
Lent commemorates the forty days Jesus spent in the wilderness before starting His public ministry. In Mark’s Gospel we read: ‘The Spirit immediately drove Him out into the wilderness. And He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and He was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered to Him.’ (Mk 1:12-13.) Matthew and Luke both give more detail. Matthew’s Gospel tells us: ‘Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterward He was hungry.’ (Mt 4:1-2.) Matthew then gives details about three temptations and how Jesus overcame each one. He ends the passage with: ‘Then the devil left Him, and behold, angels came and ministered to Him.’ (Mt 4:11.)
Luke also tells us: ‘And Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan, and was led by the Spirit for forty days in the wilderness, tempted by the devil. And He ate nothing in those days; and when they were ended, He was hungry.’ (Lk 4:1-2.) Like Matthew, he tells us of three temptations, although in a different order, and how Jesus overcame them. He finishes with: ‘And when the devil had ended every temptation, he departed from Him until an opportune time.’ (Lk 4:13.)
The three evangelists all agree on forty days. In the Bible, though, forty is a round number. The Israelites were in the desert forty years after leaving Egypt. This was a punishment for not invading Canaan when God told them to. Joshua, Caleb, and ten others, one from each of the twelve tribes of Israel, had spent forty days spying out the land. When the Israelites were afraid to invade, God made them spend on year in the wilderness for every day the spies had been in Canaan (Num 13-14). Only Joshua and Caleb had been prepared to invade, so they were the only two of that generation to enter Canaan at the the end of the forty years. They trusted in God, who had led them out of Egypt, the rest of the people did not.
Forty is four times ten. Ten is common for counting, probably because we have ten fingers (including thumbs). It is often used in Scripture as a sign of completeness. Four can also be complete. People sometimes talk of the four winds; they are mentioned seven times in the Old Testament and three times in the New Testament. There were four rivers in the Garden of Eden. In the Book of Judges, most of the Judges rule either for forty years or for twenty (i.e., half of forty). King David also ruled for forty years (1 Kings 2:11). There were forty days between the Resurrection and the Ascension (Acts 1:3). When biblical scholars read ‘forty’, they usually take it to mean ‘about forty.’
Does it Matter if Lent isn’t exactly Forty Days?
Jesus often attacked the Pharisees for being too strict about rules and forgetting about the two greatest commandments, love of God and love of neighbour (Mt 22:37-40). Keeping Lent for exactly forty days isn’t much use if you are not really keeping Lent. Giving up chocolate and eating pastries instead isn’t really keeping the spirit of Lent. Lent is a time of preparation for Easter. The Catechism tells us: ‘By the solemn forty days of Lent the Church unites herself each year to the mystery of Jesus in the desert’ (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 540). (Note the ‘forty’ days!)
Traditionally, Lent is a time of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, intended to help us draw closer to God. St Benedict tells us that ‘a monk’s life should always ‘the life of a monk ought always to maintain a Lenten observance’ (Rule of St Benedict 49.1). He notes, though, ‘yet as few are strong enough to manage this, we recommend all during these days of Lent to keep their life perfectly pure and to wash away the negligences of other times during these holy days’ (RB 49.2-3). More time in prayer, less food, and more charitable work are called for. By Easter, we should be more closely aligned to God, so that we can truly celebrate the Resurrection.
Whether 38 days or including Good Friday and Holy Saturday to make 40, Lent is a time of preparation. Some parts of the Catholic Church start Lent on the Monday before Ash Wednesday. This gives them forty days not including the Easter Triduum (the time from Maundy Thursday Mass to the Easter Vigil). This is common in Eastern Rite Catholic Churches, such as the Melkites and the Syro-Malabar Rite in India.
Have a Good Lent
More important than being forty days is the attempt to overcome ‘all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life’ (1 Jn 2:16). These are the things that draw us away from God. Our life is a journey towards God. Although the world is good because God created it ‘And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good’ (Gen 1:31), God is even bettter.
After the Forty Days
When Easter comes, we can feast. At the same time, let’s try to keep up the good habits we started in Lent. Life is a journey to God. If we’ve gone a long way down the road during Lent, we should not turn back away from God when Lent is over.