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Why is Lent forty days long?

Forty is a number with ancient biblical significance.

Lent is forty days long because Jesus fasted in the wilderness forty days and forty nights before embarking on His public ministry.

Man of Sorrows by William Dyce

But Jesus did not select the length of His fast at random. Throughout the Old Testament, a stretch of forty days (or years) has always carried a deep meaning often related to punishment, penance, and/or preparation.

Here are a few examples:

  • During Noah’s time, God sent rain for forty days and forty nights to punish the earth with flood
  • In consequence of their lack of faith, the Israelites wandered in the desert forty years before reaching the Promised Land
  • The people of Nineveh fasted and repented to avert the wrath of God which the prophet Jonah predicted would come upon them in forty days
  • Both Moses and Elijah fasted forty days before or during important conversations with God

When the time came for Jesus to begin His public mission, He utilized this tradition. His mission was of an all-encompassing nature that taps into—and fulfills—all the biblical reasons for forty day events.

As the God-Man, He was embarking on His mission to be our Mediator—to converse with God on our behalf, as Moses and Elijah did in a prefigurative way.

As the one Man Who came to bear the punishment due to all men, He evokes the repentance of Nineveh that averted the punishment of God.

His time in the desert—reminiscent of the Israelites’ forty year sojourn—proffers the idea that He is deliberately taking on the punishment due to our faithlessness, which otherwise would keep us away from the Promised Land of Heaven.

The season of Lent is our great opportunity to enter into the desert with Christ. Do you have a plan for how to approach these days and gain the incredible graces they offer us?

If not, Good Catholic can help. Our new series, A Holy Lent, launches on Ash Wednesday and runs all the way through the Easter Vigil. With a step-by-step plan for each day of Lent—including daily reflections, written content, videos, examens, and practical items—A Holy Lent is your guide for living and praying Lent more deeply than ever before. Don’t be caught unprepared next week—sign up today!

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