The Length of Lent

by Jimmy Akin

in Liturgical Year

How many days are there in Lent? Let’s count!

Every year this question comes up. People hear about Lent being forty days long, but when they look at a calendar this clearly isn’t the case. Since we’ve just quoted the official definition of the start and stop of Lent, let’s look at a calendar and count up the days. Here is the whole of Lent for 2004:

FEBRUARY

22 23 24 25
Ash Wed.
1
26

2

27

3

28

4

29
1st Sun.
5
           

MARCH

  1

6

2

7

3

8

4

9

5

10

6

11

7
2nd Sun.
12
8

13

9

14

10

15

11

16

12

17

13

18

14
3rd Sun.
19
15

20

16

21

17

22

18

23

19

24

20

25

21
4th Sun.
26
22

27

23

28

24

29

25

30

26

31

27

32

28
5th Sun.
33
29

34

30

35

31

36

     

APRIL

        1

37

2

38

3

39

4
Palm Sun.
40
5

41

6

42

7

43

8
Holy Thur.
44
9
Good Fri.
10
Holy Sat.
11
Easter Sun.
 
12 13 14 15 16 17

In this calendar, the days of Lent are counted in red. As you can see, there are forty four of them, counting Holy Thursday as one of the days (technically, only the part of Holy Thursday before the beginning of the Mass of the Lord’s Supper is Lent; once the Mass of the Lord’s Supper begins the season becomes Triduum).

Now a couple of notes:

  • The fact that the calendar above is for 2004 does not matter. Neither does the fact that a Leap Year intervenes between Ash Wednesday and Holy Thursday. The reason is that Ash Wednesday is always a fixed number of Sundays before Holy Thursday (six Sundays, counting Palm Sunday). The particular dates of the calendar that the days of Lent fall on (Leap Year included) don’t affect the total number.
  • If you want to be persnickety, you could argue that there are only forty three days since the definition of Lent’s start and stop points reads: "Lent runs from Ash Wednesday until the Mass of the Lord’s Supper exclusive [General Norms for the Liturgical Year and the Calendar 28]. Taking the word "exclusive" to refer to both Ash Wednesday and the Mass of the Lord’s Supper would knock a day off the total. However, doing this would be an error. Ash Wednesday is the beginning of Lent. Everybody knows this. And the General Norms immediately go on to list Ash Wednesday under the heading of Lent (see no. 29). The word "exclusive" applies only to the Mass of the Lord’s Supper. What we have is simply an imperfection in the drafting of the law such that it fails to properly express the legislator’s intent (which is to include Ash Wednesday in Lent).

So there you have it. Lent under current law is more than forty days long. The number forty is thus to be taken as approximate, not literal. If you want to read more about how Lent and its "forty days" evolved, see here.

(One last note: Some have noted that there are forty days up to and including Palm Sunday. Whether that is the reason Lent is said to have forty days is ambiguous; the article linked gives a much more complicated history. In any event, since the days after Palm Sunday are now part of Lent, the season now has more than forty days regardless of how the number originated).

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{ 18 comments }

Andy K. February 15, 2005 at 6:19 pm

Dear Jimmy,
Canon law allows us to break abstinence if the Annunciation or the Feast of St. Joseph fall on a Friday. I do not count these days as Lent. I also do not count Holy Thursday or Palm Sunday. The reason is that, if I remember rightly, the vestments on these days are not purple. Any thoughts here?

Doorman March 8, 2005 at 9:40 am

If you count all the days of lent from Ash Wednesday to Holy Saturday (From Ash Wed’s to Easter), minus the Sundays, you get 40 days!

Jason Ricks March 21, 2005 at 7:19 pm

what does it mean to exclude Sundays? Does that mean you can have what you gave up on Sundays?

Jimmy Akin March 21, 2005 at 7:56 pm

Sundays *are* part of Lent, but since the custom of giving something up is voluntary, many people suspend this on Sundays and have what they gave up as a celebration of the Lord’s Resurrection on Sunday.
See Annual Lent Fight for more info.

Rev. Guy Selvester March 21, 2005 at 8:42 pm

You’re all wrong. Ash Wednesday, as well as the Thursday, Friday and Saturday (most of it anyway) after it are NOT part of Lent. The Penitential practices begin on Ash Wednesday but the days from Ash Wednesday to the first Sunday OF LENT are preparatory days. Before Vatican II the penitential practices and the wearing of purple began THREE WEEKS before Lent. However, Lent begins on the first Sabbath of Lent (i.e. sundown on the Saturday evening prior to the first Sunday of Lent). There are five weeks of Lent INCLUDING THE SUNDAYS which brings us to the Saturday evening prior to Palm Sunday. That’s a total of 35 days. The if you add Palm Sunday and the Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday of Holy Week that makes forty days. Lent ends on the fortieth day, Holy Thursday, in the afternoon prior to the start of the Mass of the Lord’s Supper.
If you look in the breviary (liturgy of the hours) as well as the missal you’ll see that the days from Ash Wednesday to the First Sunday of Lent (called OF LENT because the Sundays DO COUNT) are not referred to as being part of Lent.
THAT’S how we get forty days in Lent…NOT by excluding the Sundays.
Fr. Guy Selvester

phil buchek March 24, 2005 at 2:50 pm

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, on the US Conference of Catholic Bishops web site, Lent starts on Ash Wednesday and ends on Holy Thursday.

anon March 1, 2006 at 6:45 am

I agree with Rev. Guy. What Phil is saying may be the modern way, but originally the counting was done as Fr. Guy said. Besides, if you exclude Sundays, there can be fewer than 40 days.

Fr. Stephanos, O.S.B. March 1, 2006 at 8:36 am

The Church has never enjoined us to fast on Sundays (except for the eventual discipline of fasting in preparation to receive the Eucharist). In fact, we have received injunctions FORBIDDING us to fast on Sundays.
Both the “Didache” (A.D. 90) and the “Apostolic Constitutions” (A.D. 400): “he will be guilty of sin who fasts on the Lord’s Day.”
Saint Augustine describes the joy of the weekly Easter: “Fasting, is set aside … on every Sunday”. (Ep. 55, 28: CSEL 342, 202)
Hence, the “Quadragesima” (forty-day long season) of fasting–specifically counted as forty days of fasting, needs to exclude the Sundays from fasting.
The fasting that began on Ash Wednesday is continued on Holy Thursday (as day 28 of FASTING), on Good Friday (day 39 of FASTING) and on Holy Saturday (day 40 of FASTING).
The Paschal–”Passover”–Triduum begins with the Evening Mass on Holy Thursday. However the counting of “forty days” (Quadragesima) of FASTING continues.
At present, the Church officially REQUIRES us to fast only on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. She nonetheless enjoins (without requiring) us to continue fasting on Holy Saturday
“Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy” 110 (from the English version on the Vatican’s website): “Nevertheless, let the paschal fast be kept sacred. Let it be celebrated everywhere on Good Friday and, where possible, prolonged throughout Holy Saturday, so that the joys of the Sunday of the resurrection may be attained with uplifted and clear mind.”
The color for the liturgical hours of prayer on Holy Saturday is the Lenten violet. We do not turn to the white until the Paschal Vigil.
Ash Wednesday is day 1 of the forty days of FASTING, and Holy Saturday is day 40 of the forty days of FASTING. The Sundays are excluded from FASTING. That is how we end up with forty days of FASTING between and including Ash Wednesday and Holy Saturday.

AnnonyMouse February 20, 2007 at 7:17 pm

So why at the Ash Wednesday’s Mass does it state that we are starting Lent if Lent doesn’t start til the Sunday/Saturday Night following Ash Wednesday?

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Matthew Hysell November 10, 2007 at 1:26 am

Your counting of the days of Lent does not account for Great and Holy Week being a distinct liturgical cycle in itself. I’m convinced that, given the Propers of Holy Week (esp. the collect on Passion Sunday) that Lent concludes on the day that Passion Week begins. By that counting, one has exactly 40 days.

mark cull February 21, 2008 at 8:24 am

I was under the though that LENT was the 40 days & 40 nights Christ spent in the desert Fasting & thinking about whould take place in holy week. If you count all the days from Ash wed.to Palm Sunday You get 40 days & Nights. the rest of the week before Easter Sunday is called Hoiy Week.

Zeno February 21, 2008 at 10:30 am

I was under the though that LENT was the 40 days & 40 nights Christ spent in the desert Fasting & thinking about whould take place in holy week.
I believe that’s why Catholics in olden days often referred to this time as “Quadgesima”.

Anonymous February 21, 2008 at 10:32 am

Make that Quadragesima.

ed March 17, 2008 at 7:40 am

if you give up “chocolate” for example …
is it safe to start eating “chocolate” at noon on Holy Thursday ? or should one wait until “noon” on “Holy Saturday” ? or wait until after mass on Easter Sunday ? ed – catholic

Richard February 28, 2009 at 1:11 pm

The 1911 Catholic Encyclopedia makes it quite clear that Lent is the 40 days from Ash Wednesday to Holy Thursday, excluding Sundays, and that this was not only the practice then but also dates back through the middle ages.
A couple of quotes:
“In the time of Gregory the Great (590-604) there were apparently at Rome six weeks of six days each [i.e. excluding Sundays], making thirty-six fast days in all… At a later date the wish to realize the exact number of forty days led to the practice of beginning Lent upon our present Ash Wednesday.”
If that is not clear enough, they go on to explain:
“From what has been said it will be clear that in the early Middle Ages Lent throughout the greater part of the Western Church consisted of forty weekdays, which were all fast days, and six Sundays.”
So, a fast from Ash Wednesday to Holy Thursday, excluding Sundays, making 40 days in all. Any other explanation of Lent is a modern one, introduced since 1911, and is not in accordance with the Church’s longstanding tradition.
(Unless you are in Milan, where the extension to Ash Wednesday was not followed. There, and there only, does Lent not start until the Sunday after Ash Wednesday – but it still excludes Sundays. They are let off with only a 36 day Lent, or at least were in 1911)

Greg Smisek March 2, 2009 at 10:39 am

Richard:
Since when did the Catholic Encyclopedia become the infallible oracle of history and Tradition? It is merely an academic work. Useful, yes, infallible, no.
BTW, you stated the wrong end point. To get 40 according to your preferred method, you need to count the days from Ash Wednesday through _Holy Saturday_ (inclusive), excepting Sundays, as Andy K stated earlier, and as the following arithmetic shows:
4 + (6 x 6) = 40

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