Forty Days

Today is Ash Wednesday and begins the 40 day period of Lent in the Roman Catholic and other Western Christian churches (Eastern churches start on a different day as do the Oriental churches. This year, Eastern Rite churches begin Lent on 10-March. It begins on Clean Monday and last 42 days. The Coptic Church begins Lent on 03-March this year and it lasts 55 days. For Western and Eastern Rite churches, Sundays are excluded from Lenten observation. In the Coptic Church they are not).

It is a period of fast and abstinence.

The ashes distributed on the forehead are a symbol of repentance from the Jewish tradition of using ashes and sackcloth to signify repentance. I am not aware of any official requirement to use sackcloth during the Lenten period, but I have seen a strip of sackcloth draped over crucifixes in church and a number of Catholics I know carry around a small piece. It is not part of my tradition and I do not participate in that manner. (I recall first observing the use of sackcloth by Catholics in the early to mid-90s by Charismatic Catholics. It may be culturally or traditionally used elsewhere.)

The exact origin of Lent is kind of fuzzy and murky. Certainly there are records of various types of observances preceding Passover / Easter celebration in the early church. The generally official reason for 40 days is in imitation of Jesus' 40 days in the desert.

Personally, I have always seen it as symbolic of the 40 years the Jewish people spent in the desert following their emancipation from Egypt. I have always observed it as an act of solidarity with our Jewish brothers and sister of the hardship they endured.

Arguments could also be made that Moses spent 40 days on Mount Sinai1 in the presence of God; the 40 day journey Elijah made to Mount Horeb2; the 40 days Nineveh had to repent3.

However, like any religious observations, customs, requirements, we need to go beyond the letter of the law and immerse ourselves in the Spirit of truth and faith.

Some 4th century fathers thoughts on fasting and abstinence:

"Let the mouth also fast from disgraceful speeches and railings. For what does it profit if we abstain from fish and fowl and yet bite and devour our brothers and sisters?" - Saint John Chrysostom (c.347– c.407 C.E.)

"Beware of limiting the good of fasting to mere abstinence from meats. Real fasting is alienation from evil. 'Loose the bands of wickedness.' Forgive your neighbour the mischief he has done you. Forgive him his trespasses against you. Do not 'fast for strife and debate.' You do not devour flesh, but you devour your brother. You abstain from wine, but you indulge in outrages. You wait for evening before you take food, but you spend the day in the law courts." - St. Basil the Great (c.329 – 379 C.E.)

(1) "He [Moses] was there with the LORD forty days and forty nights; he neither ate bread nor drank water. And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the ten commandments. - Exodus 34:28 [Christian spin could be that we are called to write the covenant and the commandments of the Lord into our hearts - Richard]

(2) "[H]e [Elijah] himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: “It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” Then he lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep. Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, “Get up and eat.”6He looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water. He ate and drank, and lay down again. The angel of the LORD came a second time, touched him, and said, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God." - 1 Kings 19:4-8 [two postulates come from this: (1) without God's help, we do not have the strength to reach Him, (2) the journey to God is long and not easy (but, I am sure some literalist will read it and say, "It is only 40 days, so long as God feeds me." - Richard]

(3) "Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”

And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth. When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. Then he had a proclamation made in Nineveh: “By the decree of the king and his nobles: No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything. They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water. Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.” When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.
- Jonah 3:4-10 [sounds pretty Lenten to me - Richard]

[Update 07-February-2008 @ 11:19 AM: added information about the start dates of Lent for Eastern and Coptic churches.]


DianeCA said…
oh no! Guilt is beating me down...raised a catholic, ash wednesday and lent are a big big deal in our family...and I haven't thought over what to give up for lent. shoot what haven't I indulged in today. Maybe the standard...chocolate....
Barbara said…
I learned a lot from this. It's always nice to know what's behind certain religious practices.
Esther said…
Richard, this is exactly what one friend requested. Thanks!
I must dmit, giving up things for lent is not part of my life but I understand the idea that some have about needing to experience a little suffering to understand Jesus' suffering.
Richard said…
dianeca: oh, no, there should never be any guilt. Guilt has never been part of my faith life. I know that some harp on our sinfulness, original sin and the need for redemption, however, I see original sin and the sinfulness of man in much the same way I see that I cannot fly. They are facts about my nature, but they do not make me feel less or unworthy.

barbara: you are welcome. I enjoy your posts on Judaism as well. It is one thing to read about them (academically), another to see how others incorporate it in their life.

esther: you are welcome, although I can't see what you got out of it since it was an ultra-light overview of Lent (and not even focussed on the practice).

MOI: I never saw giving something up as suffering, I see it as a symbolic gesture of being willing to give up everything to be with God. Some faith traditions (especially those which insist that only grace is necessary for salvation) may consider it unnecessary, but healthy rituals help to gently reinforce our ideas and beliefs (but when they are done mechanically they are of no use. In Eastern traditions, it is said that fasting without prayer is the fast of the devil, since the devil neither prays nor needs to eat).
Well, I guess the suffering depends on what you're giving up! Some people who give up french fries they love and eat daily, may really suffer without them! (Even though their cholesterol may not suffer!)
Don't many religions have a "suffering" element so we can experience what Jesus went through and hence honour him and appreciate the fact that he died to save us? We are somewhat being "with" Him (God or Jesus)in that way..suffering along with Him type of thing.

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