Why Is Lent Only 40 Days?

Aaron Damiani
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Many people ask, “Why should I give up something for forty days that I wouldn’t for the rest of the year?” Or, “Why limit fasting, prayer, and generosity to the forty days of Lent? If this path is good for Christians, why not make it the default, lifelong posture?”

In short, heightened devotion is fruitful for a season, but cannot be sustained indefinitely. The Christian calendar offers a sustainable rhythm of which Lent is a part, and the fasting of Lent gives way to the feasting of Easter. Fasting and feasting are interconnected disciplines that teach us to love the King and His coming kingdom. In Lent, we learn to confess our sins, practice self-denial, and take on the humility of Christ. In Easter, we learn to rejoice, exult, and feast in Christ’s victory. As historian William Harmless explains, “In these two liturgical seasons Christians drank in, by turns, the ‘not yet’ and ‘already’ of New Testament eschatology.”[1]

It’s important to remember that the Christian liturgical calendar developed in part out of the rhythms of Jewish practice. The Old Testament indicates seasons of both heightened devotion and celebration, including Levitically led “Sabbaths, new moons, and feast days” (1 Chron. 23:31) and “seasons of joy and gladness and cheerful feasts” (Zech. 8:19). Fasting and feasting were part of the “architecture of time”[2] in which Jesus participated as an observant Jew.

“Fasting and feasting are interconnected disciplines that teach us to love the King and His coming kingdom.”

Practicing this rhythm of devotion each year has a cumulative impact. Each time we latch ourselves to Christ during Lent, He ministers maturity and grace that impact the rest of our year. Many Christians choose to keep, or modify, their Lenten disciplines for the rest of the year, as they have established helpful routines.

Finally, all Christians are welcome to exercise the disciplines they learned in Lent at any time. In the same way that every Sunday is recognized as a “little Easter,” many Christians celebrate every Friday as a “little Lent” by fasting in remembrance of Jesus’ passion and death. Other churches invite their members to fast in January as a way to devote their year to God. Setting time aside for certain practices allows us to focus more intently on God and to develop godly habits.

[1] William Harmless, Augustine and the Catechumenate (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1996), 307.

[2] This phrase is original to Abraham Heschel, The Sabbath, rev.ed. (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1997), 8.

For Further Reading:

The Good of Giving Up

by Aaron Damiani

“Like many evangelicals who love the gospel, I had my doubts about Lent.” It’s true, Lent can often seem like an empty...

book cover for The Good of Giving Up