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The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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Counting

A little history of how '40 Days of Lent' came to be

Here’s a timely “worship why”: “If Lent is 40 days, why are there 46 days between Ash Wednesday and Easter?”

The idea of “the 40 days of Lent” has always been more of a metaphor than a literal count. The season of preparation for Easter Sunday has ranged from one day (first century) to 40 (today in the Western church because we don’t include Sundays). Lent begins on Ash Wednesday and ends at sunset on Maundy Thursday.

“Lent” is from the Old English word for spring and basically refers to the lengthening of days in the Northern Hemisphere this time of year. Lent has historically been a time of repentance and forgiveness, prayer, preparation for or recollection of baptism, and preparation for celebrating the Three Days and the Easter season. Its observance is as old as the fourth century.

At the Council of Nicea in 325, the bishops spoke of the quadragesima paschae (Latin for “40 days before Easter”) as the well-established custom. At that time Lent began on the sixth Sunday before Easter and ended at dusk on Holy Thursday—40 days. But the council also forbade fasting, kneeling and any other acts of sorrow and penance on Sundays, even in Lent. So only 34 of the 40 days were for fasting, which apparently was a problem for some.


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