FAQs about Lent

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FAQs about Lent

Part 4 of a series of articles for the Lenten season by Msgr Michael de Verteuil, Chair of the Archdiocesan Liturgical Commission

Q: Why is Lent 40 days long?

The Lenten period of preparation for Baptism at Easter began with a one-day fast, and over the early centuries varied considerably from one day to 40 with a two-week Lenten preparation period (some may remember quinquagesima and sexagesima Sundays).

It eventually settled at 40, but to get 40 days of fasting the period Ash Wednesday to the First Sunday of Lent was added. Lent is actually 46 days long but since the Sundays (days of Resurrection) were not seen as days of fasting, those six days are subtracted from the 46 to come to the number 40.

Why 40? Possibly in imitation of Jesus’ 40 days of fasting in the desert. But 40 has a tradition in the Bible—the Israelites wandering for 40 years in the desert after the escape from Egypt, Moses spending 40 days on the holy mountain, Elijah travelling for 40 days to get to Mt Horeb.

Q: What is the meaning of the word Lent?

It is believed that the word ‘Lent’ comes from the old English word ‘lencten’ which then became ‘lente’, words meaning Springtime, when days were lengthening after the short days of winter. The word ‘Lent’ is not used in other languages outside of English-speaking countries. Italy, for example, uses the term ‘Quaresima’ or  ‘Quarenta giorni’ (40 days). In these Covid days, it may be interesting to know that the word ‘quarantine’ came from the term used to describe the 40 days sailors had to stay on their boats in Venice before being allowed to disembark during the time of the Great Plague.

In French, the word for ‘Lent’ is ‘Carême’. In Trinidad, we had the period known as Petit Carême, a little Lent. Lent was during the dry season so when we had a short spell of dry season in the middle of the rainy season (usually September-October) it was called Petit Carême.

Q: Are there any special prayers for Lent?

In the prayers of the Masses of Lent, the Collect and Preface are special to Lent and speak of the practices of Lent and their fruit. Reading them will be useful for our spiritual journey.

For personal use, there are many prayers which are particularly useful in Lent. There are the seven penitential psalms (6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, 143) and Psalm 22, and devotions such as Divine Mercy, Stations of the Cross, the Five Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary.

There are also some passages from Isaiah sometimes referred to as the Songs of the

Suffering Servant (42:1–4, 49:1–6, 50:4–7, 52:13–53:12). These are very helpful for giving us insight into the mind and experience of Jesus.