ASK FATHER: Does Lent really have 40 days? How does that add up?

From a reader…


Father, sorry for the possibly silly question, but adding up the days from Ash Wednesday to the Lord’s Supper Mass, excluding, it does not add up to 40 if we exclude Sundays as memorials of the Resurrection, but 39 instead. So, how do we count Lenten days?

First of all, 40 is an important symbolic number in Scripture. Hence, the season is associated with Biblical “40s”.

40 shows up many times in Scripture, usually concerning a period of testing.  For example, when God flooded the earth for 40 days and 40 nights. After killing an Egyptian, Moses spent 40 years in the deserts of Midian. Moses spent 40 days and 40 nights was on Mount Sinai. He interceded for the People for 40 days and 40 nights. The Israelites wandered in the wilderness for 40 years. Israel was enslaved by the Philistines for 40 years. Goliath taunted Saul for 40 days. Elijah traveled 40 days and 40 nights to Mt. Horeb. 40 also appears in various OT prophecies.

And of course Our Lord spent 40 days and 40 nights fasting and there were 40 days between His Resurrection and Ascension.

However, as far as Lent is concerned, in the ancient Church Lent began with what is now the 1st Sunday of Lent, that is, six Sundays out from Easter, and it ended on Holy Thursday, with the Triduum. That brings us to 40 days.

Because all Sundays, including those during Lent, are considered to be echoes of Easter, when we don’t do penance, Lenten Sundays were excluded from the count. That takes us down to 34 fast days. Ash Wednesday with Thursday, Friday and Saturday were added. As a result, between Ash Wednesday and Holy Thursday we have 44 days. However, subtract the intervening Sundays, and add back Good Friday and Holy Saturday and you wind up with 40 penitential days again.

There are different ways to tweak the number. However, the important point is the association with Biblical 40s, especially the time that the Lord spent fasting in the wilderness as His public ministry began.


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  1. KateD says:

    So having given up coffee and doughnuts for Lent, (which are normally consumed more frequently than just Sundays) then I may have a scant cup on Sunday and a half a doughnut? It feels like cheating….actually, it feels like failure, like breaking an oath…Then again we are told we are not to fast on Sundays. But often when the fast is broken for Sunday, I tend to be more lax afterwards…

    Sundays in Lent perplex me….sigh…and coffee is good.

  2. Ave Crux says:

    Fascinating and very helpful. Thank you! I’m intrigued about why God consistently chose the # 40 in this way. There must be a reason. I have often compared that to 40 also being the number of weeks in a normal human pregnancy … giving birth to new life. Could that be the parallel? Each of the biblical circumstances which you have mentioned were a passage: to new life, a new era, etc … no?

  3. THREEHEARTS says:

    in the UK and in other countries in Europe before ambiguous council, Lent started midnight Shrove Tuesday and finished midday Holy Saturday

  4. Fr. Kelly says:

    When asked this question, I advise that we are free to either observe our penances on the Sundays or not. But it is best to make this decision when we take on the penance.

    It is always better to add to a penance because it was too easy than to give up on it because it was too hard.

  5. Veritatis Splendor says:

    St. John Cassian in his conferences has a fun alternative explanation for the length of Lent. He notes that there are, from the First Sunday to Holy Saturday at noon, 36.5 fast days, which is 10% of 365, the number of days in a year. That is to say, Lent is a tithe of our time each year.

  6. William Tighe says:

    Here is another elucidation about the length of Lent and its “count” of 40 days:

  7. Elizabeth R says:

    Just to add to the complications, the Solemnities of St. Joseph and the Annunciation frequently occur during Lent.

  8. Fr. Kelly says:

    St. Joseph always. And Annunciation nearly always

  9. Kenneth Wolfe says:

    The 1962 calendar makes it so much clearer, with each of the 40 days of Lent as a day of fast (albeit no longer binding under post-Vatican II canon law) and each of the days with a blessing prayer after the postcommunion. Thus, Ash Wednesday through Holy Saturday, minus Sundays = 40 days. Most TLM handmissals are clear that Sundays are never to be days of penance. Having, for instance sweets on Sunday and then resuming the penance of no sweets on Monday makes the penitent think a little more, reflecting upon the six weekdays and rejoicing on Sundays. Otherwise, it easily becomes a six week diet!

  10. Charles Sercer says:

    Maybe my experience is fogged up by my last 2 lents, which were spent inside a Benedictine monastery. But it seems important to observe that, while Sundays in Lent are not days of fast, that doesn’t mean that one should otherwise resume his life as lived during Lent. For example, we resolved to say some extra prayers for Lent, why would we not want to do that on the Sundays of Lent also? Likewise, if we gave up chocolate for Lent, why not also continue that on Sundays? I do not see why Lenten Sundays, aside from there being no fasting, could not retain something of a penitential character.

    As an interesting note, this monastery where I was – every single day was meatless (three days a week egg-less), including Sundays, and every day was a fast day, excluding Sundays – even on the Solemnities which occurred. And there are 3 for them nearly every year – St. Benedict on the 21st in addition to St. Joseph and the Annunciation.

    The idea being, I guess, that feasting should not be viewed only through the lens of food. Haha. And this is especially (perhaps only) very easy to see in a monastic context – on a solemnity, each office and the Mass are celebrated in a markedly different way than on ferias, Lenten or not, and thus, at all hours of the day, one is imbued with the sense that it is a very special day, a “feast” day. And of course, add to that the fact that the 19th, 21st, and 25th are “holidays” at the monastery – i.e. non work days with their own special schedules/activities – and then it is easy to see how one does not necessarily need to break the fast in order to feast!

    Obviously, this would be difficult to mirror in a secular setting, where the 19th, (21st,) and 25th of March are not “holidays” and people rarely say any offices, much less attend a Mass which is much differently celebrated than any other day.

  11. Charles Sercer says:

    …I meant to say, near the beginning of my post,

    “…that doesn’t mean that one should otherwise resume his life as lived OUTSIDE of Lent.”

  12. Kenneth Wolfe says:

    Well, mark me down for favoring Lent as 40 days — not as 46 days.

    Here is one example of the logic of excluding Sundays from Lenten penance:

    “As today is not a day of fasting, there is no collecta previous to the stational procession, this procession being a rite of a distinctly penitential character, and therefore not in keeping with the Sunday festival.” – The New Roman Missal, by Father F.X. Lasance

    [I like that reference to the penitential station procession. In ancient practice, there were festal and penitential processions, the latter exemplified mainly in Lent. NB also that in the traditional form on Sunday’s of Lent there is no oratio super populum.]

    Fr. Z's Gold Star Award

  13. KateD says:

    Thank you Father Kelly, Charles and Kenneth. Your comments are very helpful and make a lot of sense.

  14. MrsAnchor says:

    This has often troubled me because of growing up with my parents, grandparents and relatives observing different Rites. When I had Lents that did observe Sunday those Lents seemed very lacking. Like a breathe of air after being in a coal mine or sewage plant for a week. It made it all too easy. As if I was not in a Desert along with our Lord.
    The Days of Sunday that weren’t broken seemed to offer so much more reward, but it was a bother to be in conflict with the proposed Sunday “Feast”

    Did Christ leave the Desert or anyone (St John Baptist) then for that matter on “Sundays”? Just •why• the change of not observing a Whole 40 days through and through I would be interested in the footnotes as to it being abolished in the Early Church?

    I am edified by the Orthodox/Byzantine observances of Lent and that go’s for the whole year with Wednesday being another Fast/Abstinence day throughout the 365 …

    Talk about living solely for Christ!

    In any case, I am being diligent during my Lent because what’s the whole reason for it in the first place?! Removing what has been getting in our way to living with Christ. I do not want to fall asleep when He asks us to stay with Him an hour or the foolish Virgin who didn’t have enough oil at the end nor one who is without the proper attire for the wedding Feast. How is that done? Lent is a great step in that direction to know thyself

    Perhaps those who have difficulty with the “break” of Sunday can add cherries to their 6 other days as to still feel the arid dry Season of Lent.
    If our Lady told Francisco, Jacinta and Lucia not to wear their Ropes to bed…. well well .. us Adults can surely figure out something to please our Lord during the week

  15. Giulio says:

    There are different way of computing the Lent season. In the ancient Ambrosian Rite, Lent starts on Sunday, four days later than the Roman Rite. If I am not wrong they count 40 days, Sundays included to end on Holy Thursday. There are more notable differences: Lent Fridays are feriae aneucaristicae just like Holy Saturday in roman rite.

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