40 days—the duration of Lent—is one of the most symbolically significant periods of time in the Bible.
Lent, the special season that precedes Easter, is an English word and comes from the “lengthening” of daylight hours, as we progress from the darkness of winter to the new light of spring.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church states: By the solemn forty days of Lent the Church unites herself each year to the mystery of Jesus in the desert (CCC 540).
The 40 days mentioned here are not figurative or approximate; they are not a metaphor; they are literal. They are tied, as the 40 days of Lent have always been for Christians, to the 40 days that Christ spent in fasting in the desert, after His baptism by John the Baptist. The Catechism continues to speak of the “salvific meaning of this mysterious event,” in which Jesus is revealed as “the new Adam who remained faithful just where the first Adam had given in to temptation.” (CCC 538-540).
By uniting “herself each year to the mystery of Jesus in the desert,” the Church participates directly in this salvific act. It’s no wonder, then, that from a very early period in the Church’s history, a literal 40 days of fasting has been seen as necessary by Christians.
In the language of the Church, Lent has historically been known by the Latin term Quadragesima—literally, 40. These 40 days of preparation for the Resurrection of Christ on Easter Sunday were, again, not approximate or metaphorical but literal, and taken very seriously as so by the entire Christian Church from the days of the Apostles.
The Apostles, accordingly, established for our weakness, at the very commencement of the Christian Church, that the Solemnity of Easter should be preceded by a universal Fast; and it was only natural, that they should have made this period of Penance to consist of Forty Days, seeing that our Divine Lord had consecrated that number by his own Fast. St. Jerome, St. Leo the Great, St. Cyril of Alexandria, St. Isidore of Seville, and others of the Holy Fathers, assure us that Lent was instituted by the Apostles, although, at the commencement, there was not any uniform way of observing it. And if you’re trying to do the math –
- Ash Wednesday to Holy Saturday, inclusive, is 46 days.
- There are six Sundays in this period, which the Church has never allowed to be kept as days of fast.
- 46 days minus 6 Sundays equals the 40 days of the Lenten fast.
As I mentioned at the start of this post, the 40 days of Lent is one of the most symbolically significant periods of time in the Bible.
The Old Testament is also punctuated with other symbolically significant 40-day periods. Noah and his passengers in the Ark experienced heavy rain for 40 days and nights. Moses spent 40 days on Mount Sinai when he received the Ten Commandments. The Israelites wandered around the desert for 40 years.
Forty, a number also appearing in years, is a number of punishment and repentance, testing and resting, and, above all else, absolute dependence on God. Whenever God wants to do something significant, He does it in 40 days (or years). Forty is associated with almost each new development in the history of God’s mighty acts, especially of salvation.
Each of the above certainly marks a new era in salvation history. Noah and the Ark marks the rebirth of a sinful world that has been cleansed by flood waters. In Moses’ case, it was the birth of the people of the covenant. For the nomadic Israelites, it was the start of a new, settled existence in the Promised land. And Jesus Christ? What did his forty days in the wilderness signify? The imminent birth of a new Israel liberated from sin, reconciled to God, and governed by the law of the Spirit rather than a law chiseled in stone.
The biblical symbolism of 40 also has an intriguing connection that I do not believe is a coincidence … 40 is the traditional number of weeks for a pregnancy.
Pregnancy is indeed an apt model for the biblical periods above. It begins with the intensity of the moment of conception, is followed by a time marked by both pain and joyful anticipation, and then, only after this period of postponement, is there the birth of someone new. It is most fitting then, that the new era of salvation for mankind, began with a pregnancy … Mary’s.
Lent is a time when Christians separate from the world; when we are called to realize our faith is much more than merely attending Mass and going to confession twice a year, but one that answers the deepest questions of life and eternity. Darkness can give way to increasing light and something new and wonderful can be born in us. Those who journey through the Lenten season will enter the Easter season with an increased appreciation for who God is and what He has done for us. Lent is the time for spiritual growth and passion—knowing ultimately that it is Jesus who journeys with us, who acts within us, and suffers for us and with us.
And the joy of Resurrection and the promises of eternity will not be soon forgotten!