How did the number 40 enter Lent?

By Fr. John Broussard | The Compass | March 11, 2021


I know there are 40 days in Lent. What is the significance of the number 40 in the Catholic faith? – Green Bay


The number 40 appears many times in throughout the scriptures.  It was 40 days and nights of rain during the flood of Noah; Moses spent 40 days on Mount Sinai; the Jews journeyed through the desert for 40 years to the Promised Land; Jesus fasted in the desert 40 days; and these are only a few of the references.

The use of the number 40 does not mean a direct reference from one thing to the something else, (like say the number three in the Bible being a reference to the Trinity). Instead, 40 is a symbolic number indicating a time of testing or purification. Whenever the number 40 is seen in Scripture, it is immediately to be known that God is testing/teaching or purifying as this is the number always chosen to express this notion.

This is the intention for the season of Lent being a period of 40 days.  The church upholds the symbols and signs that God has revealed (especially in Scripture), and expresses them in harmony with salvation history.

Lent is our period of testing, teaching, and purification. It is an opportunity to see ourselves and better our relationship with God. One does not want to waste the season of Lent like the Israelites of old, falling into idolatry while Moses is up on Mount Sinai learning the commandments of God. Come Easter, the hope is to be closer to the Risen Lord in such a way that, each year, our relationship with him deepens.

Fr. Broussard, a Father of Mercy, is rector of the National Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help in Champion, Wis.


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