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Commentary: Counting the days until Easter

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There are 40 days of Lent but not 40 days after Ash Wednesday to Easter

 

Life has many imponderables, those things in life that cause us to excogitate endlessly trying to understand them. For example: Who still uses the word “excogitate”? But imponderables are also a source of humor. Some of my favorite imponderables:

  • Why isn’t phonetic spelled the way it sounds?
  • Why is the third hand on a watch called a second hand?
  • Why does the word “monosyllabic” have so many syllables?
  • Why is the time of day with the slowest traffic called the rush hour?
  • If a cow laughs, does milk come out of her nose?
  • What was the best thing before sliced bread?
  • Why does the sun lighten our hair, but darken our skin?
  • If nothing sticks to Teflon, how do they get Teflon to stick to the pan?
  • If the police arrest a mime, do they tell him that he has the right to remain silent?
  • If Lent is a season of 40 days, why is it 46 days long?

 

The Long and the Short of It

I’ll let the first nine imponderables pass, in this column I’ll answer that 10th one — because every year that question comes up: If Lent is a season of 40 days, why is it 46 days long? A few issues back in this

Icon depicting the First Council of Nicaea (Wikimedia Commons)
Icon depicting the First Council of Nicaea (Wikimedia Commons)

newspaper, there was a one-paragraph Q&A response that gave a very short-shrift answer to what is a very interesting question with a most interesting answer.

Let’s step into the Way Back Machine and set the controls for the year 325 A.D. At that time the Lenten practice had developed over the few centuries since the death and resurrection of Christ. The Catholic bishops gathered at the Council of Nicaea and discussed, among a plethora of topics, the “quadragesima paschae” (Latin for “the 40 days before Easter”), a time when acts of penance were performed in preparation for the coming of Easter. In the fourth century, Lent did not begin on Ash Wednesday; it began on the sixth Sunday prior to Easter Sunday, and it ended, as it does today, on Holy Thursday. Exactly 40 days.

However, the Council of Nicaea noted it would be wrong for folks to engage in penitential acts on a Sunday, as all Sundays are days for recalling the Resurrection. It was decided that Sundays were to be knocked out of the count of days for Lent — the 40 days became 34 days.

 

Roman Numerals of Reasons to XL

Well, now there was a problem! Why? The number 40, which just got reduced like a Jenny Craig client, is a significant number. Christ spent 40 days in the desert, the Jews wandered 40 years in the desert, Noah and the critters spent 40 days in the ark, Kings of Israel — Saul, David and Solomon — reigned for 40 years, there are 40 chapters in the book of Exodus, for 40 days the prophet Jonah warned the Ninevites to repent, Moses was on Mount Sinai for 40 days, the Bible by tradition is said to have had 40 human writers, from Christ’s birth (Christmas) to his presentation in the Temple (Candlemas) was 40 days, 40 was the maximum number of lashes allowed for punishment under Mosaic law, Jesus, post-resurrection, appeared to his followers for 40 days before his Ascension. In short, the number 40 has significance.

 

Working for the Weekend

All parties involved wanted to get to that 40-day mark for that season of Lent; that was still the understanding of the season. So, the first thing that was done to move in that direction was to tack Good Friday and Holy Saturday into Lent. That moved the count to 36 days. Then, there was another problem: You see, Lent is a season in which we are called to repent, atone for our sins and come back to God. But, it is also a time when those entering into the church, especially for baptism, prepare for the Easter Vigil. And back in the day when the first Sunday of Lent marked the first day of Lent, the catechumen (those to be baptized) were the focus of that day.

 

Never on Sunday

What’s the problem? Well, over the next few centuries, an additional focus of Lent developed. Folks having fallen into serious sin —murder, adultery, heresy —needed to publicly show their penance as a way to re-enter into the faith. They would spend the season of Lent in this preparation for re-entry and formally rejoin the flock on Holy Thursday. It was determined that marking these folks with ashes, which they would wear for the season of Lent, would be a proper, scripturally based symbol of their repentance.

However, it was deemed that a Sunday would be an inappropriate day for such a penitential symbol to be imposed. It was decided that the Wednesday, which back then was a day of fasting, before that first Sunday would be the better time to impose ashes on the penitents. So Ash Wednesday (in practice, though not yet in name) was born. Marking the start of Lent on that Wednesday, allowed that season which had been reduced to 36 days, to return to 40 days.

 

Urban Development

As a side note, the imposition of ashes on the penitents was deemed a good practice for all. By the ninth century it was common for all Christians (as we are all sinners) to have ashes imposed upon them. In 1091, Pope Urban II extended the practice of receiving ashes on the Wednesday that started the Lenten season to all the faithful. Soon after that, the term Feria Quarta Cinerum (Ash Wednesday) came into use.

 

Back to the Future

So, taking all of this into a-count, how many days is Lent these days? The church puts forth that Lent ends on Holy Thursday, yielding to three days called the “Sacred Triduum” — Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday. However, during the Triduum the penitential Lenten practices continue until the Easter Vigil. To think of all of this in simpler terms, we get our ticket for the Way Back Machine punched once again, and return back to the year 325 A.D. when the Council of Nicaea called for a penitential quadragesima paschae (“40 days before Easter”). And that is what the Season of Lent, when combined with the Triduum, effectively gives us: a penitential season of 40 days before Easter.

 

Words of Hope

While writing this column, and looking at the variations on days in Lent, I was reminded of a joke by comedian Bob Hope, who said, “I knew this woman who said she was approaching 40, and I couldn’t help wondering from what direction.”

Reflecting on those words of Hope (ouch), the days of Lent, which we are currently experiencing, are not some imponderable mystery (like “How did the TV series ‘Mr. Belvedere’ run for five seasons?”) but rather they are a blessing from God to bring us close to him. Each year, we are called to use all 40 of these blessed days well.

 

Father Lentini is pastor of Holy Cross Church in Dover and Immaculate Conception Church in Marydel, Md.