Lent is a season of preparation for the celebration of Easter. [It begins on Ash Wednesday, which this year is February 17th.]
Renewed devotion to Jesus
For many Christians, it is an occasion for renewed devotion to Jesus, for a recommitment to follow him on the way to the cross—and through the cross to the empty tomb. For good reason, then, the season begins on a day dedicated to themes of repentance, prayer, and spiritual disciplines. We refer here to Ash Wednesday when we hear the call to repentance and receive on our foreheads the imposition of ashes, a visible mark of this call to us in our solidarity with a sinful humanity destined for death. “From dust, you came, to dust you shall return. Repent, therefore, and believe the gospel!”
From Ash Wednesday, the season unfolds over the next forty days, excluding the Sundays contained within it. (Since Sundays are always “feast” days, during which we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus from the dead regardless of the period in the church calendar, they are not counted in a season marked by repentance and spiritual disciplines.) It is apt, then, that we encounter the Latin ordinal number “Quadragesima” (fortieth) already on the first Sunday in Lent, which in earlier times was known as “Quadragesima Sunday.” It is a curious convention, however, considering the fact that this Sunday is not the fortieth day, but instead marks a period that is to extend forty days.
Why 40 Days?
Why forty days? The period of forty is significant in both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. During the days of Noah, rain falls upon the earth forty days and nights, wiping out every living thing (Gen. 7:4). Moses spends forty years in the desert of Midian in exile after killing the Egyptian (Acts 7:30). The children of Israel wander in the desert forty years before entering into the Promised Land (Num. 14:33; 32:13; Deut. 2:7). Moses is on top of Mount Sinai for forty days before coming down with the two tablets of God’s law (Ex. 24:18). Strengthened by food provided by an angel, the prophet Elijah travels forty days and nights until he reaches Horeb, the mountain of God (1 Kings 19:8). To the inhabitants of the city of Nineveh the prophet Jonah preaches: “Forty days and Nineveh will be destroyed,” prompting them to fast and repent in sackcloth and ashes ( Jon. 3:4). Jesus fasts for forty days in the desert, where he is tempted by Satan, before launching his public ministry (Matt. 4:2; Mark 1:13; Luke 4:2).
Season of Lent
These texts, among others, can be seen to contain many of the themes that find expression during the season of Lent. Throughout the forty days, God’s people are invited to watch and to wait, to fast and to pray, to repent, and to “make level paths for their feet” (Heb. 12:13). All this is meant for the testing and proving of their faith with the aim of spiritual renewal, associated with the Easter Triduum (or the “Great Three Days”). It is in these three days, which include Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday, that the Lenten season dramatically culminates.
This article on Lent is an excerpt from Christopher Dorn’s New book, Following Jesus on the Way: Biblical Meditations on Lenten Themes.
Christopher Dorn holds a bachelor’s degree from Calvin University in Grand Rapids, Michigan, a Master of Divinity degree from Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan, and a Ph.D. from Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He currently serves as lead pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Ionia, Michigan.