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Lent has 40 days. Have you ever wondered why?

Lent is the 40-day penitential period in the Catholic Church, immediately preceding the Feast of Paschal (Easter), the Church’s largest feast. Eastern Catholic churches call this period Great Lent.

There is a strong biblical basis for observing a period of 40 days of penance and/or anticipation. The Scriptures are full of meaning, perhaps known only to God, of the number 40.

In the Old Testament, God punished mankind by sending a flood over the earth for 40 days and nights. The people of Nineveh repented of their sins with 40 days of fasting. The prophet Ezekiel lay on his right side for 40 days as a precursor to the siege and destruction of Jerusalem. Elijah the prophet fasted and prayed for 40 days on Mount Horeb. Moses fasted 40 days and nights while he was on Mount Sinai. Moses and the Israelites wandered in the desert for 40 years of penance until they entered the Promised Land.

In the New Testament, the Lord fasted for 40 days and nights in preparation for the beginning of His public ministry.

We model our 40-day Lenten season today on this holy tradition, established throughout Salvation History, the story of God’s relationship with humanity. The most important thing is that we observe these 40 days of Lent in imitation of Our Lord, the example for all of us.

Very early in the history of the Church, the practices and length of Lent became more regulated with the Church Fathers encouraging the practice of the 40-day fasting period before the more intense fast of Holy Week. By the end of the fourth century, it was well established in the Church that the duration of Lent was 40 days and that prayer and fasting constituted its main spiritual exercises.

To this day, we observe 40 days of penitential practices, typically prayer and fasting because we take Jesus as our model, to prepare for the Paschal feast, that is, Easter. The Catechism tells us “For the solemn forty days of Lent the Church unites each year to the mystery of Jesus in the desert.” (Catholic Catechism #540).

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