Why is Lent 40 days long?

02-lent-40In Jewish and Christian tradition, the number 40 has symbolic meaning. A period of 40 days or years, more than being a literal measurement, represents a long time and a period of preparation or testing. When 40 days or 40 years have passed, the appropriate period or the “right amount of time” has been completed in preparation for the working of God’s grace. Recall the 40 days and 40 nights of rain during the flood in Genesis 7, the 40 years that the Israelites wandered in the desert after the Exodus, and the 40 days that Jesus spent in the desert before beginning his public ministry in the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. Lent lasts 40 days so that we will spend the “right amount of time” in this period of penance and preparation before Easter. The period from Ash Wednesday to the vigil of Holy Saturday contains 46 calendar days, but Sundays do not “count” in the 40 days of Lent because every Sunday we celebrate the resurrection of the Lord. Every Sunday is a like a little Easter and gives us cause to rejoice, even in the midst of a penitential season.

Neela Kale

Neela Kale

Neela Kale is a writer and catechetical minister based in the Archdiocese of Portland. She served with the Incarnate Word Missionaries in Mexico and earned a Master of Divinity at the Jesuit School of Theology. Some of her best theological reflection happens on two wheels as she rides her bike around the hills of western Oregon.