Forty Days & Forty Nights
by Felix Just, S.J., Ph.D.

Biblical Background:

According to the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus spent "forty days" in the desert before beginning his public ministry (see Mark 1:13; Luke 4:2). Matthew's Gospel even specifies that it was "forty days and forty nights" (Matt 4:2). Whether or not this period of Jesus' life was precisely forty days is irrelevant theologically, since the number "forty" is highly symbolic in all biblical literature, representing "a long time," especially a time of trial or testing. Consider the following examples:

Forty Days:

Forty Years:

Counting the Forty Days of Lent:

Christians celebrate Lent as a period of preparation before Easter, with fasting, prayer, almsgiving, and penance. Based on the above biblical foundations, it is traditionally thought to be forty days long; yet there are actually 46 calendar days between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday. So which of them is counted as the "forty days" of Lent? Several factors complicate the answer to this question.

Since Lent in 2006 began on March 1, this year was chosen in the following tables to make the various counting schemes a bit easier to follow:

Date 3/1 3/2 3/3 3/4 3/5 3/6 3/7 3/8 3/9 3/10 3/11 3/12 3/13 3/14 3/15 3/16 3/17 3/18 3/19 3/20 3/21 3/22 3/23 3/24 3/25 3/26 3/27 3/28 3/29 3/30 3/31 4/1 4/2 4/3 4/4 4/5 4/6 4/7 4/8 4/9 4/10 4/11 4/12 4/13 4/14 4/15 4/16
Week . Week 1 Week 2 Week 3 Week 4 Week 5 Holy Week
Day Ash
Wed
Th F S Sun M T W Th F S Sun M T W Th F S Sun M T W Th F S Sun M T W Th F S Sun M T W Th F S Palm
Sun
M T W Holy
Thurs
Good
Fri
Holy Sat Easter
Sunday
Opt.A 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 .
Opt.B . . . . 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 . . .
Opt.C 1 2 3 4 . 5 6 7 8 9 10 . 11 12 13 14 15 16 . 17 18 19 20 21 22 . 23 24 25 26 27 28 . 29 30 31 32 33 34 . 35 36 37 38 39 40 .

Although option C is probably the most common understanding today, it does not match the current liturgical understanding that the Easter Triduum is not part of Lent; thus, there are technically only 38 days "of" Lent from Ash Wednesday to Holy Thursday, not counting the Sundays. This should not stop us from singing Lenten songs like "Forty Days and Forty Nights," if we remember that the symbolic value of "forty" is more important than its literal value.

For a choice of online viewing options, here is the same table in Vertical Layout:

Date Weekday / Sunday Opt. A Opt. B Opt. C
3/1 Ash Wed 1 . 1
3/2 Thurs after Ash Wed 2 . 2
3/3 Fri after Ash Wed 3 . 3
3/4 Sat after Ash Wed 4 . 4
3/5 1st SUNDAY 5 1 .
3/6 Mon of 1st Week 6 2 5
3/7 Tues of 1st Week 7 3 6
3/8 Wed of 1st Week 8 4 7
3/9 Thurs of 1st Week 9 5 8
3/10 Fri of 1st Week 10 6 9
3/11 Sat of 1st Week 11 7 10
3/12 2nd SUNDAY 12 8 .
3/13 Mon of 2nd Week 13 9 11
3/14 Tues of 2nd Week 14 10 12
3/15 Wed of 2nd Week 15 11 13
3/16 Thurs of 2nd Week 16 12 14
3/17 Fri of 2nd Week 17 13 15
3/18 Sat of 2nd Week 18 14 16
3/19 3rd SUNDAY 19 15 .
3/20 Mon of 3rd Week 20 16 17
3/21 Tues of 3rd Week 21 17 18
3/22 Wed of 3rd Week 22 18 19
3/23 Thurs of 3rd Week 23 19 20
3/24 Fri of 3rd Week 24 20 21
3/25 Sat of 3rd Week 25 21 22
3/26 4th SUNDAY 26 22 .
3/27 Mon of 4th Week 27 23 23
3/28 Tues of 4th Week 28 24 24
3/29 Wed of 4th Week 29 25 25
3/30 Thurs of 4th Week 30 26 26
3/31 Fri of 4th Week 31 27 27
4/1 Sat of 4th Week 32 28 28
4/2 5th SUNDAY 33 29 .
4/3 Mon of 5th Week 34 30 29
4/4 Tues of 5th Week 35 31 30
4/5 Wed of 5th Week 36 32 31
4/6 Thurs of 5th Week 37 33 32
4/7 Fri of 5th Week 38 34 33
4/8 Sat of 5th Week 39 35 34
4/9 Palm SUNDAY 40 36 .
4/10 Mon of Holy Week 41 37 35
4/11 Tues of Holy Week 42 38 36
4/12 Wed of Holy Week 43 39 37
4/13 Holy Thursday 44 40 38
4/14 Good Friday 45 . 39
4/15 Holy Saturday 46 . 40
4/16 EASTER SUNDAY . . .

Return to the Roman Catholic Lectionary for Mass,

esp. the Readings for the Season of Lent.


Electronic New Testament Educational Resources

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