Why ‘40’ days in Lent? — Forty carries a sense of getting things accomplished in Scripture


There are many numbers that stick in our head, and indeed in the idioms of our language and culture. From TV, we remember Agents 86 and 99 on “Get Smart.” Likewise there was “77 Sunset Strip,” “90210,” “60 Minutes,” “30 Rock,” and “The $64,000 Question.”

In music, there are Paul Simon’s “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover,” John Lennon’s “#9 Dream,” Question Mark and the Mysterians’ “96 Tears.” We know what the IRS’ 1040 is during tax season; we gamble on a 50/50 raffle; we grab a Slurpee at the 7-Eleven.


You can count on numbers

Numbers: They are part of our language and often carry meanings beyond their quantification and identification value. Thus we know 13 is “bad luck,” 666 is the mark of the beast, three is a crowd and seven is counted the perfect number. But as we enter the season of Lent, the number we have in our mind and in our spiritual radar sights is one that has not been mentioned thus far. The number we associate with Lent is 40. Forty is so associated with Lent, that in Latin, the official language of Catholicism, the season is called “Quadragesima,” which means “40th” as in 40 days until Easter. From this Latin word, many romance languages derive their name for Lent: in Spanish Lent is called “Cuaresma” and in Italian “Quaresima.”


What’s up with 40?

So, why 40? Why not 50 days or 60 or perhaps 33 days?

Jesus fasted for 40 days and nights in the desert, as depicted in this detail from the 1872 painting by Ivan Nikolaevich Kramskoi, “Christ in the Desert.” (Wikimedia Commons)

The number 40 has a special place in salvation history. The number occurs over and over and over again through the Old and New Testaments. If I had to specify what the commonality of all the Biblical references to the number 40 is, I’d have to say that it speaks to an amount necessary to accomplish a part of God’s plan. In some cases it also carries the sense of being a period of testing.


Forty-fied Bible history

Where in the Bible are those many 40s? Let’s step into the Wayback Machine and set the dial to the time of Noah, and from there we will work forward in time.

l In Genesis, God spares Noah and his family during the cleansing of the Earth by the great flood. Because of their fidelity, he saves them by allowing them to escape on the famous Ark built by Noah himself. The rain that caused the flood fell for 40 days and 40 nights. And at the end of that time, Noah, the wife, the kid and their many pets, and future meals, disembarked from the ark and began life anew, faithful to God.

l In Exodus, Moses led the Jewish people out of Egypt, with the destination being the Promised Land. Fast forward, 40 years later they finally got there. This was a 40-year period that served to test the faith of Moses and his people, and re-establish the chosen people in the land given to them by God. It’s been said in the humorous side of the story that the reason it took 40 years to get from Egypt to Israel was because as a man, Moses refused to stop and ask directions.

l Also, in Exodus 34:28, we learn that Moses spent 40 days with God on Mt. Sinai: “So Moses was there with the Lord for 40 days and 40 nights, without eating any food or drinking any water, and he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the 10 words.” It was at the end of this 40-day period that we, by way of Moses, received the Ten Commandments.

l In Deuteronomy, the law is laid down on punishments: “Forty lashes may be given, but no more; or else, if more lashes are added to these many blows, your brother will be degraded in your sight” (25:3). Forty is used to quantify what is an acceptable amount of punishment by whipping. The number 40 in this case provides the amount that yield satisfaction made to counter what one had done before.

l In Judges, we are told that a judge named Abdon had 40 sons (12:14). Now, this would certainly beat out the number of kids in the cast of the “Brady Bunch” by a large stretch. As I mentioned, one of the aspects of the number 40 in Scripture is that it can portend a testing of a person. Having 40 kids would be quite a test.

l Then in Judges 13:1, the Israelites “did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, who therefore delivered them into the power of the Philistines for 40 years.” Much like the 40 lashes mentioned in Deuteronomy, it was deemed that 40 was the proper number for years of punishment due. And this really was a punishment, because the Philistines were, well, Philistines. It would be like being sent to live under the rule of Californians for 40 years. I know, it gave me a shudder up my spine, too.

l King Saul, King David and King Solomon each ruled Israel for 40 years.

l In the Book of the Prophet Jonah, God gave the people of Nineveh 40 days to repent from their sins. “Jonah began his journey through the city, and when he had gone only a single day’s walk announcing, ‘Forty days more and Nineveh shall be overthrown.’ The people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast and all of them, great and small, put on sackcloth” (3:4). This passage speaks very clearly to our idea of the 40 days of Lent being used as a time to turn back to God.

l In the First Book of Kings, an angel tells Elijah that he must eat and drink to have strength for the journey he was on. God provided the food and the drink; Elijah ate and drank it, and was able to continue his trek for 40 days. That’s to show that hearing and heeding God’s message can prepare one for endurance.


New Testament, same old 40

l Mary carried Jesus in her womb from the Annunciation until Christmas – 40 weeks.

l Jesus fasted for 40 days and nights in the desert, in preparation for his public ministry. During that time he was tempted by the devil, but nonetheless fended off those temptations. It is this experience of Christ that we most closely relate to the season of Lent. The church teaches us in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (540) this is the very basis of the Season of Lent: “By the solemn forty days of Lent the Church unites herself each year to the mystery of Jesus in the desert.”

Christ was tempted three times by the devil:

The first time the devil tempted Christ to break his fast by turning stones to bread.

The second time the devil tempted Christ to throw himself from the temple and see if God would protect him as promised in Scripture, and

The third time devil tempted Christ to bow down and worship him.

Christ’s responses to each of these were:

“It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.”

“It is written: ‘You shall worship the Lord, your God, and him alone shall you serve.”

“It also says, ‘You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.”

Christ spoke exactly 40 words in rebuke of the devil. Okay, I confess this only works in English – not in the original Greek or in the Latin text. But it’s an interesting coincidence.

l We read in the Acts of the Apostles, that after his resurrection from the dead, Jesus remained on earth for 40 more days before ascending to heaven.


Time to accomplish

There are many, many other Biblical references to the number 40. However, the ones that I listed are fairly well known, and express that sense that 40 represents an amount of time one needs to accomplish what God requires of us or a sense of a time of testing.

So for us this Lent, the church in its holy wisdom gives us 40 days to accomplish what God requires of us — turning back to him wholeheartedly, strengthening one’s faith, resisting evil — and, indeed, it can be understood as a time of testing of faith and devotion. There are 40 days this Lenten season; use them well.


Father Lentini is pastor of Holy Cross Church in Dover and Immaculate Conception Church in Marydel, Md.