Catholic Math: Where do the “forty days” of Lent come from?

Crucifixion scene with Sunoco gas station in background

The Father, the Sunoco, the Holy Ghost, Carnegie

Ash Wednesday. For those of certain faiths, it is the start of the season of Lent.

Even this heathen knows that Lent is forty days. But then he actually counted it out on the calendar and it wasn’t quite so clear. Lent starts on Ash Wednesday and ends Easter Sunday, right? This year, those dates are Feb. 10 and March 27, respectively. That’s 46 days. What gives?

First, apparently I’m wrong about the end date. Lent actually concludes on Holy Thursday, which is March 24. This leads to a follow-up question on why people are still fasting on Good Friday if the season already over, but I’ll leave that for another discussion. In any case, this only gets us down to 44 days.

From the Wikipedia entry on Lent:

Some sources try to reconcile this with the phrase “forty days” by excluding Sundays and extending Lent through Holy Saturday. No official documents support this interpretation.

In the Ambrosian Rite, Lent begins on the Sunday that follows what is celebrated as Ash Wednesday in the rest of the Latin Catholic Church, and ends as in the Roman Rite, thus being of 40 days, counting the Sundays but not Holy Thursday. The day for beginning the Lenten fast is the following Monday, the first weekday in Lent. The special Ash Wednesday fast is transferred to the first Friday of the Ambrosian Lent.

One calculation has been that the season of Lent lasts from Ash Wednesday to Holy Saturday. This calculation makes Lent last 46 days, if the 6 Sundays are included, but only 40, if they are excluded, because there is no obligation to fast on the six Sundays in Lent.

I hate to sound like Ross Perot here, but these explanations read the like tax code. How do you exclude Sundays from a season? Why are fast dates transferrable? Why not just rebrand it to “forty-four days” or “forty-six days” (take your pick) and have a straight(er) story?

Catholiceducation.org offers yet another explanation for the symbolic need to keep the number at 40, despite what a literal reading of the calendar may suggest:

The number “40” has always had special spiritual significance regarding preparation. On Mount Sinai, preparing to receive the Ten Commandments, “Moses stayed there with the Lord for 40 days and 40 nights, without eating any food or drinking any water” (Ex 34:28). Elijah walked “40 days and 40 nights” to the mountain of the Lord, Mount Horeb (another name for Sinai) (I Kgs 19:8). Most importantly, Jesus fasted and prayed for “40 days and 40 nights” in the desert before He began His public ministry (Mt 4:2).

So…42 days, 44 days…ah, hell, let’s just call it “forty days” and fry some fish.

Holy Spirit Byzantine Church with orthodox cross draped in yellow, Pittsburgh, PA

Holy Spirit Byzantine Church, Oakland, six days before Easter 2015 and the purple’s already down

Last year around this time we ran a story on why purple is the color of Lent. This pagan dumbly thought he’d caught the Byzantines in a whole different color scheme. They’re on their own trip all right, but it turns out it’s the calendar and not the palette. For Byzantine Catholics, Great Lent begins on “Clean Monday” (two days before Ash Wednesday) and extends to the Friday before “Lazarus Saturday.” They count all the Sundays, so it’s five full seven-day weeks plus five days = 40 days. Then there’s an eight-day Holy Week that doesn’t count as (Great) Lent leading up to Easter.

None of these explanations seem to either be conclusive or make much sense, but I guess that’s what faith is all about.

 

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