The preseason of Easter known as Lent (from the German and Dutch words for “spring”) is one of the oldest non-Biblical seasonal observances in the history of Christianity. Granted, many of the basic Christian practices we celebrate today (such as worship on Sunday instead of the Sabbath, or even the annual observance of the Resurrection of Our Lord at Easter) are not, strictly speaking, dictated to the Church within the pages of the Bible. However, that does not necessarily mean that many of these same things were not practiced in the time of the New Testament, or that they don’t have strong ties to the Biblical witness as a whole. After all, Jesus’ resurrection did coincide with the Jewish Passover, which was itself mandated by God as an annual observance (Exodus 13:10). What’s more, His resurrection did occur on the day after the Sabbath (Mark 16:9), which would make logical sense for a new day of weekly worship by His followers. Indeed, historical Christian witnesses were writing about these regular observances within their own worshipping communities mere decades after the letters of the apostles.
Similarly, these same early Christians wrote about our forbears’ penitential practices in preparation for these holy days: prayer, fasting and even wearing ashes. These outward symbols of penance, like the times and seasons they marked, were also carried down from the practices of our Jewish ancestors in the faith. Because Jesus’ resurrection from the dead was the focal point of the Christian calendar, these penitential practices also became a major focus for Christians, both personally and in worship together, in the lead-up to Easter. Very early in the Church, the final days before Easter were filled with worship, prayer, fasting, and spiritual sacrifice. Many Christians today continue such practices during Holy Week. For some, these observances stretched out over a longer period of preparation. By the First Council of Nicaea (AD 325), the idea was being discussed to hold a 40-day period of fasting before the annual feast of the Resurrection. Even though that practice did not become more universally observed for another three centuries, most Christians around the world to this day continue to observe a 40-day period of Lent before Easter, although the ways in which those 40 days are counted and practiced may vary.
But why 40 days? Specifically, this is the number of days over which Jesus himself fasted in the wilderness and resisted the temptations of the devil (Matthew 4:2; Mark 1:13; Luke 4:2). This is also the period of time given for Nineveh’s destruction, which they successfully averted through their repentance and fasting (Jonah 3:4-5ff). Forty days saw the actual destruction of the world by flood (Genesis 7:12, 21). But then, Jesus also spent 40 days sharing comfort and encouragement with his followers on earth after his resurrection from the dead, before he ascended into heaven (Acts 1:3). Simply put, 40 is a nice, round number. Jewish theology understands this number to represent a sort of concrete expression for the idea of “many days” or “many years.” For instance, ancient peoples understood the peak of human life to be around 40 years, and so it was that length of time through which God made the Israelites wander in the wilderness, so that a whole generation would pass away because they hadn’t trusted God after 40 days of spying out the promised land (Numbers 14:34).
Through this season of Lent, I will be joining my colleagues – Pastor Barb Jones and Pastor Jon Brudvig – in exploring these and other Biblical references to 40 days, through a series of sermons and articles. You can read our articles over the next three weeks right here in the Tribune. Also, you are welcome to come listen to our sermons each Wednesday this Lent (Feb. 21 to March 21) at the service of your choice: 6 p.m. at St. Mark Lutheran or 7 p.m. at Trinity Lutheran, both in Great Bend, or 7 p.m. at St. Paul Lutheran, Galatia. Whatever your own practices may be in preparation for the celebration of Easter, “do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:6 ESV)
Pastor Adam Wutka is the pastor at St. Mark Lutheran Church, Great Bend.