Why is Lent 40 days long?

320px-AshWednesdayAltarLent is the period of 40 days that runs up to Easter, when the Christian church recalls the events leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion by Rome. Christians use Lent to replicate Jesus Christ’s sacrifice by fasting, both from food (often giving up one or two items, such chocolate or wine), and festivities, prayer and penance.

The word ‘Lent‘comes from the old English, and means ‘lengthen.’ Lent is observed in spring, when the days begin to get longer.

But why is Lent 40 days long? As well as 40 days being the period Jesus is said to have spent wandering in the desert, the number 40 is significant in other areas of Jewish and Christian scripture. For example, in Genesis, the flood which destroyed the Earth was brought about by 40 days and nights of rain. As well as that, Moses fasted for 40 days before receiving the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai, and the Hebrews spent 40 years in the wilderness before reaching the land promised to them by God.

Although both the eastern and western churches observe Lent, they count the 40 day period in different ways. The Western church excludes Sundays within the 40 day period, but the Eastern Church includes them. Both churches also begin their celebration of Lent on different days.

In the west, churches start Lent on the 7th Wednesday before Easter Day (called Ash Wednesday). In the east, churches begin Lent on the Monday of the 7th week before Easter, and end it on the Friday 9 days before Easter. Eastern churches call this period the ‘Great Lent’.

Both the western and eastern sides of the Christian church call the last week of Lent Holy Week, and the celebration of Easter.


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Dr Kathryn Bates is a graduate of archaeology and history. She has excavated across the world as an archaeologist, and tutored medieval history at Leicester University. She joined the administrative team at Oxford Open Learning twelve years ago. Alongside her distance learning work, Dr Bates is a bestselling novelist, and an itinerant creative writing tutor for primary school children.

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