Q. Why does Lent last forty days?
A. The Lenten season includes forty days of penance because it recalls the forty days that Jesus spent in the wilderness fasting and praying, preparing for His public ministry, and the Devil’s attempt to tempt Him there (Luke 4:1–13). Our forty days of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving join our hearts more closely to Our Lord’s heart and strengthen us against the Enemy’s temptations as we seek to serve God.
The number forty has great significance in Scripture and in the history of our salvation. The flood in the time of Noah was associated with forty days and nights of rain (Genesis 7:12). Noah sent out a raven forty days after the ark came to rest (Genesis 8:6).
The Israelites wandered in the wilderness for forty years after their exodus from Egypt (Exodus 16:35). When Moses climbed Mount Sinai to receive the Law, he remained there fasting for forty days and nights (Exodus 24:18; 34:28). On two later occasions, he prayed and fasted forty days in penance for the sins of his people (Deuteronomy 9:25; 10:10). When Moses sent Israelite spies into the land of Canaan, they returned after forty days (Numbers 13:25).
When the judges ruled in Israel, after various wars with their enemies the land would enjoy peace for forty years (Judges 3:11; 5:31; 8:28). King Saul, King David, and King Solomon each reigned over Israel for forty years (Acts 13:1; 2 Samuel 5:4; 1 Kings 2:11; 1 Kings 11:42).
The prophet Elijah fled from Jezebel forty days and forty nights to arrive at Mount Horeb, where the Lord spoke to him (1 Kings 19:8). God warned the city of Nineveh through the prophet Jonah that the people had only forty days until judgment would come (Jonah 3:4). The Lord instructed the prophet Ezekiel to act out a prophecy for forty days to symbolize forty years of punishment for Judah (Ezekiel 4:6).
In the New Testament, forty was not just the number of days Jesus spent in the wilderness. He also appeared to His disciples multiple times over the forty days after His resurrection. For this reason the Church has traditionally celebrated the Ascension of Our Lord forty days after Easter (Acts 1:3). These passages suggest that the number forty typically symbolizes in Scripture a time of testing or trial; a season of penance or judgment; or a period of fullness or completion.