Is Lent really 40 days long?

March 2, 2017

Lent began yesterday with the celebration of Ash Wednesday. This liturgical season is focused on preparing for the celebration of Easter by recalling our own Baptism, doing penance, and uniting ourselves more closely with Christ.

But is Lent really 40 days long?

According to the Universal Norms for the Liturgical Year and the General Roman Calendar,

28. The forty days of Lent run from Ash Wednesday up to but excluding the Mass of the Lord's Supper exclusive.

This means that Lent begins on Ash Wednesday and runs to just before the Mass of the Lord's Supper on the evening of Holy Thursday. As soon as the Mass of the Lord's Supper starts, we enter a new liturgical season: Triduum.

If you add up the days, including Ash Wednesday and Holy Thursday, it comes out to 44 days (though, technically, only the part of Holy Thursday before the beginning of the Mass of the Lord's Supper is Lent.)

As you may notice, Sundays are included in the season of Lent. That is why the Sundays of this time of year are called the First, Second, Third, Fourth, and Fifth Sundays of Lent! The Sixth Sunday, on which Holy Week begins, is called "Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord." It is also part of the Lenten season.

Christ in the Wilderness by Ivan Nikolaevich Kramskoj (1872)

So where does "40 days" come from?

It might be more accurate to say that there are 40 days of penance and fasting between Ash Wednesday and Easter.  Historically, Lent has varied from a week to three weeks to the present configuration of 44 days. The forty day fast, however, has been more stable. While the Sundays of Lent are certainly part of the liturgical season of Lent, but they are not prescribed days of fast and abstinence. So we take the 44 days between Ash Wednesday and Holy Thursday minus 6 Sundays equals 38, plus Good Friday and Holy Saturday equals 40.

So does that mean that when we give something up for Lent, such as candy, we can have it on Sundays?  Apart from the prescribed days of fasting and abstinence on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, and the days of abstinence every Friday of Lent, Catholics have traditionally chosen additional penitential practices for Lent - such as giving up vices or temptations or by taking on additional prayers or activities to grow in faith. These practices are disciplinary in nature and are often more effective if they are continuous, i.e., kept on Sundays as well. That being said, such practices are not regulated by the Church, but by individual conscience.

The number forty is also significant in Scripture. Pope Benedict XVI explained this in his 2009 Message for Lent:

Lent recalls the forty days of our Lord's fasting in the desert, which He undertook before entering into His public ministry. We read in the Gospel: "Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was hungry" (Mt 4,1-2). Like Moses, who fasted before receiving the tablets of the Law (cf. Ex 34,28) and Elijah's fast before meeting the Lord on Mount Horeb (cf. 1 Kings19,8), Jesus, too, through prayer and fasting, prepared Himself for the mission that lay before Him, marked at the start by a serious battle with the tempter.

In the same way, this season helps us to prepare our hearts and minds to celebrate the joy of Easter and to fulfill our mission in the world today.

May this Lenten season unite you more closely with our Lord, Jesus Christ!