Have mercy on me, O God, in your faithful love, in your great tenderness wipe away my offenses; wash me thoroughly from my guilt, purify me from my sin.
Psalm 51:1-2

The forty-day fast of Lent draws its authority from the Old Testament, from the fasts of Moses and Elijah, and from the Gospel, because the Lord fasted that many days, showing that the Gospel is not at variance with the Law and the Prophets.  The Law is personified by Moses, the Prophets by Elijah, between whom the Lord appeared transfigured on the mountain.
St. Augustine, Letters 55

The Forty Days of Lent begin on the Sunday after Ash Wednesday.  The 40th and final day will be Holy Thursday.
Companion to the Calendar, Copyright © 1993, Archdiocese of Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications

By the solemn forty days of Lent, the Church unites herself each year to the mystery of Jesus in the desert.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church, 540

(We count the forty days as the ancients counted without the concept of a zero place-value with the First Sunday of Lent counting as day #1)

At the Church's First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea in AD 325, the Universal Church established a forty-day season of preparation for the celebration of the Lord's Resurrection.  The forty-day count began six Sundays before Resurrection Sunday and ended three days before the resurrection, which they called the Paschal Triduum (pas-kul tree-du'-um).  The Paschal Triduum is the three days (as the ancients counted) from sundown Holy Thursday until sundown on the Feast of the Lord's Resurrection.  Today we still count the forty days as the ancients counted without the concept of a zero place-value.  The forty-day preparation was inspired by Jesus' forty days in the wilderness after His baptism by St. John and before His temptation.  The Council called this period in the liturgical calendar Tessarukosti in Greek and Quadragesima in Latin, which means "forty-days."

The Church didn't establish Ash Wednesday until the 11th century AD as a ceremony for catechumens preparing for baptism at the Vigil Mass of the Feast of the Resurrection.  For the catechumens, it was a reminder of the fleeting nature of temporal life compared to the promise of eternal life made possible through a confession of faith in Christ Jesus followed by submission to the Sacrament of Baptism (Mk 16:16).  Later, the Church extended Ash Wednesday Mass to the universal Church with the days between Ash Wednesday and the First Sunday becoming an introduction to the forty-day season before the Triduum.  The Church chose the readings at Mass the days between Ash Wednesday and the Triduum to teach about the three spiritual disciplines of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.  These three activities function best when joined together because they balance each other and bring us closer to Christ.

The word "Lent" comes from the same root as the Angelo-Saxon word "lengthen." In the old Angelo-Saxon tongue, it was a word for springtime when the daytime lengthens rapidly. For us, it reflects the "lengthening" of our "daylight" hours as we progress from the darkness of winter to the new light of the celebration of Christ's resurrection and the remembrance of the promise that Jesus, the "Light of the world," will come again. Lent is, in essence, the Church's springtime.  We are encouraged to look at this period of Lent as a journey.  Lent reminds us that this is the season to turn away from our worldly distractions and turn back to God.  It should be a time of inner reflection, and at the end of the Lenten journey, we should expect to find ourselves at a different place spiritually than when we started.  At the end of the forty days, if we have truly humbled ourselves and submitted ourselves to the Lord, the grace of God working in our lives should have conformed us more perfectly to the image of Christ, who is Himself the image and likeness of God the Father.

In English, we use the word "Lent" for this season in the Liturgical Calendar, but other languages, like Spanish, have a name for this season derived from the word for forty as the Council of Nicaea originally named this Liturgical season.  The forty-day period of reflection and prayer has its roots in the Old Covenant practice of forty days of repentance before the Feast of Atonement (Yom Kippur).  Although we fast during this period, on Sundays, we only fast the hour before Mass.  The Lord's Day is a day of celebration when the Bride (the Church) unites with the Bridegroom (Christ).  We do penance for forty days because Jesus fasted and Satan tempted Him for forty days in the wilderness with the same sins which Adam, Eve, and the first generation of the Israelites committed in their disobedience and lack of trust in God (Matthew 4:1-11; Mark 1:12-13; Luke 4:1-13).

Christians can express interior penance in many ways, but Sacred Scripture and the Fathers of the Church insist that the most meritorious expressions of interior penance, aside from the purification of Christian Baptism and martyrdom for the faith, are found in the practices of almsgiving, prayer, and fasting.  These three acts of Christian virtue express continual conversion in turning away from sin in three ways:

  1. Almsgiving: conversion in relation to others
  2. Prayer: conversion in relation to God
  3. Fasting: conversion in relation to oneself

Each of these acts of religion offers the Christian a means of obtaining expiation of sins (CCC 1434; Sirach 3:30/33-31/34; Tobit 12:8-9; James 5:20; 1 Peter 4:8).  In Matthew 6:1-21, Jesus gives a three-part teaching concerning the hidden motives of the heart and interior holiness.  He discussed the righteous Christian's obligations in the three acts that are the hallmarks of Christian penance (see CCC 1434, 2043, 2447, 2462, 2744-45).



In the 40-days of Lent, each of the Sundays has a special significance.  It is during the first Sunday of the Lenten period that we celebrate the Rite of Election.  In the early history of the Church, Lent was first set aside as a time when the whole Church fasted, prayed, and gave alms for the 40 days preceding Easter.  The purpose was to break the power of darkness in the world as new Catholics were welcomed into the Covenant family, and lapsed Catholics readmitted into Communion.  Instruction for converts to the faith lasted forty days.  It was a time set aside for the catechumens (a Greek word that means "someone who is taught by word of mouth") to begin their "exodus" out of the "darkness" of the secular world and to "cross the Jordan" into the "light" of a covenant relationship with Christ and His Church.  Their journey climaxed in the Sacrament of Baptism that Jesus said was necessary for eternal salvation (Mk 16:16).

In the early history of the Church, Lent was not just a time for inward focus and assessment of personal growth, but it was also a time for Catholics to focus outwardly on the fulfillment of the "great commission" in the spread of the Gospel and the growth of the Church. We keep that tradition in the Rite of Election when those prepared for baptism travel to the Cathedral and are presented to the Bishop.  At their baptism on the Easter Vigil, they are welcomed into the Church family, the Body of Christ.


Lent is the season of repentance, confession, and penance.  In Matthew 3:8, St. John the Baptist told the Pharisees and Sadducees who were coming to him for a ritual cleansing for the repentance of sins: Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance, and St. Paul said, I preached the need to repent and turn to God and to do works giving evidence of repentance.

During the forty days of Lent, God calls us to deep soul-searching and an examination of conscience to seek out the sin in our lives so we can confess our transgressions and to offer up our sincere desire to right the wrongs we have done.  Through the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation, we seek to obtain pardon through God's mercy for the sins committed against Him and our brothers and sisters in the human family.

We call the Sacrament of seeking peace with God:

  1. The Sacrament of Conversion because it makes sacramentally present Jesus' call to conversion, which is the first step in returning to fellowship with the Father from whom we have strayed in our sin.
  2. The Sacrament of Penance because it consecrates the confessed sinner's personal and ecclesial steps of conversion, penance, and satisfaction made for the sins committed.
  3. The Sacrament of Confession because confessing our sins to Christ through His priest is an essential element of this sacrament.  It also acknowledges the sovereignty of God over our lives and of His holiness and mercy toward sinful man.
  4. The Sacrament of Forgiveness because, by Christ's priestly representative, God grants the repentant sinner pardon (absolution) and peace.
  5. The Sacrament of Reconciliation because the sinner receives through his confession and act of contrition the love and mercy of God who reconciles us to Himself.

In Matthew 5:24, teaching the New Covenant Law of love, Jesus told those who desired to follow Him that before they offered praise and worship to God, to "leave your gift there at the altar, go first and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift." And St. Paul admonished the Christians of the Church at Corinth to renounce all sinful acts, to confess personal sins, and turn back to God.  We must live in holiness because a Holy Father deserves holy children who serve the other children in the human family as elder brothers and sisters as role models of righteousness.  St. Paul wrote: So we are ambassadors for Christ, as if God were appealing through us.  We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.  For our sake he made him to be sin who did not know sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him (2 Corinthians 5:20).

In this 40-day journey to holiness, the Lord calls us to recommit ourselves to live the Law of the New Covenant in loving God and our brothers, keeping in mind His warning: Therefore, we aspire to please him, whether we are at home or away.  For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive recompense, according to what he did in the body, whether good or evil (Matthew 5:9-10).  We must remember Jesus' command in the Sermon on the Mount to show our love for God by demonstrating His love for those in need through our almsgiving and exercising discipline over the material world in favor of spiritual gifts through the spiritual practice of fasting united to prayer (Matthew chapter 6).


On the Third, Fourth, and Fifth Sundays of Lent, many Catholic Parishes celebrate the Scrutiny Rites.  The word scrutiny means "search." The "Lenten scrutinies" are rites of searching.  The purpose is to search out and heal all that is sinful or weak in the hearts of those chosen for baptism at Easter.  The "chosen ones" are called "the elect." On these Sundays, the Gospel readings come from the Gospel of St. John and include the story of the Samaritan woman who met Jesus at the well, Jesus' cure of the man who was born blind, and on the fifth Sunday, the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead.  Each story is about a "Passover" experience:

During a scrutiny rite, the "elect" step forward with their godparents, bow their heads or kneel, and everyone in the assembly prays for them that they may experience this same "Passover." We pray that they experience "passing over" into the truth of the Gospel of salvation, into a spiritual vision to sustain them on their faith journey, and in the Sacrament of Baptism, a "passing over" by dying to sin and to rebirth in the new life in the risen Savior, Christ Jesus.


The Fourth Sunday of Lent is Laetare Sunday.  Every Mass has an entrance antiphon, which is a sentence or two (usually from the Scriptures) sung at the beginning of Mass.  There was a time when each Mass had a title.  The title came from the first word (in Latin) of the day's antiphon.  The antiphon for the Fourth Sunday of Lent is from the 66th chapter of the Book of Isaiah and begins, Rejoice, Jerusalem! Come together, you who love her.   In Latin, one of the words used for "rejoice" is laetare, which gives the title Laetare Sunday to this Lenten Mass.  On the Fourth Sunday of Lent, we are halfway to Easter.  We rejoice because we are halfway home.

The readings for the fourth Sunday focus on hope and reconciliation.  It is the story of every believer who squanders the Father's birthright of eternal salvation.  When becoming lost in sin, we cut ourselves off from our Father, but He is always ready to welcome us back, to forgive us, and to share His life with us.


The liturgy of Lent this month focuses on God's works in the Exodus.  The Psalm of the 5th Sunday tells us God is a mighty and gracious God who, in faithfulness to His covenant, has done "great things" for His people.  Both the Psalm and the first reading look back on Israel's Exodus experience.  However, we can see in the Exodus of Israel out of slavery in Egypt a pattern of the events in which Jesus the Messiah will lead a new Exodus.  Jesus is the new Moses, liberating His covenant people from slavery to sin and death and bringing them to the Promised Land of Heaven!  This new Exodus was made possible through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, our Savior.  It is the event we solemnly remember and celebrate on the 7th Sunday.


The Sixth Sunday of Lent is Palm Sunday or the Sunday of the Passion of the Lord.  The vestments the priest wears today are red, just as they were on Good Friday.  This Mass celebrates the day Jesus rode into the city of Jerusalem on the 10th of Nisan.  It was the day in the Old Covenant preparation for the Passover feast when the people chose the perfect male lambs or goat-kids for the sacrifice of the Passover, reliving the events of the first Passover in Egypt (Exodus 12:3).  This was the day the crowds in Jerusalem proclaimed Jesus, the true Lamb of God, and placed palm branches before Him as he rode into the Holy City, fulfilling the prophecy of Zechariah 9:9 and Jacob/Israel's prophecy for Judah's heir in Genesis 49:11-12.  We remember that event and celebrate by carrying palms at Mass as signs of life and resurrection.

The Sixth Sunday is the last Sunday before the Paschal Triduum, our Passover festival, as we enter our own Jerusalem and begin our final preparation for Holy Week.  It was on a Thursday that the Jews celebrated the last legitimate Old Covenant annual Feast of the Passover.  The Gospel of John 12:1 established the Passover as six days from the dinner in Bethany (as the ancient's counted).  The dinner in Bethany was a seventh-day Sabbath meal the day before Jesus rode into the city of Jerusalem on the first day of the Jewish week.

Sunday is a day we observe as Palm/Passion Sunday when the crowds of people laid palm branches in front of the donkey Jesus rode and shouted, "Hosanna," the Messianic greeting, "Save us we ask!" In ancient times there was no concept of 0 as a place holder; therefore, when the ancients counted in any series of years, months, or days, for example, the first day was always counted as day #1.  If it was six days from the Saturday dinner in John 12:1 to Passover, then Passover occurred on a Thursday in complete agreement with the other Gospel accounts, and Jesus was crucified on a Friday, just as we keep the remembrance of those same events in the Holy Triduum.


The Paschal Triduum (the three days of Passover) begins at sundown on Holy Thursday and lasts until sunset on the seventh Sunday, Easter Sunday, the celebration of the Resurrection of our Lord.  Holy Thursday until sundown is the final day of Lent: the fortieth day of the forty days.  At sundown, Lent ends and the Paschal Triduum begins. During this period, we follow the Jewish Old Covenant custom of counting the day from sunset to sunset.

The next day is Good Friday.  Friday is the 6th day of the week.  It is the day in the Creation event when God made the animals and the first human beings in His image a likeness (Genesis 1:27).  Friday is also the day when Jesus gave up His life on the altar of the Cross to free humanity from the penalty of the sin and separation from God.  On this day and Holy Saturday, the Eucharistic Chapel remains closed.

The day following Good Friday is Holy Saturday.  In Latin, it was called Sabbatum Sanctum, the Holy Sabbath.  The Pascal Sabbath lasts from sunset on Good Friday to sundown on Holy Saturday and is the middle day of the Triduum.  Saturday was the 7th day of Creation event and the Old Covenant Sabbath.  It is the day God rested after the work of Creation, and it was the day God commanded man to keep holy under the Old Covenant and to enter into God's "rest." It was on the Old Covenant Sabbath that Jesus "rested" in the tomb.  The Church "rests" in Christ this day.  On the Friday and Saturday before Easter Sunday, we fast, rest, and keep watch.  It is customary to keep Holy Saturday free from all kinds of work, even the preparation of meals.  In the night between Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday, our fasting ends, and the feast begins. It is the night of the glorious Easter Vigil, and at Mass on this night, the catechumens will be baptized and start their renewed lives as sons and daughters of the New Covenant in Christ.


The seventh Sunday is here at last.  Sunday is the first day of the week; it was the first day of Creation when God said, "Let there be light!" It was on this day of the New Creation that God raised Jesus from the dead.  That is why we call Sunday "the Lord's Day." This day is Easter Sunday.  The word "Easter" comes from the same Angelo-Saxon root as the words "star" and "east" and means "dawn light."  This word has become an excellent way to describe the Christian Passover.  The Church reveals its heart and soul to the world at Easter.  It is the time of the most beloved Scripture stories: Creation, Noah and the Flood, the Exodus, Jonah and the Great Fish, and the Gospel of the Resurrection.  On this day, we complete our journey from the altar of the Cross to the empty tomb, and it is the day we look forward in time to the promised Second Advent of Christ.

Easter Sunday begins the Easter Season.  It is a fifty-day celebration that lasts from Easter Sunday to the second great Pentecost.  For the Old Covenant people of God, the Feast of Weeks (Shavuot), was known by the Greek word "Pentecost," meaning "fiftieth" during Jesus' time (Acts 2:1; 20:16; 1 Corinthians 16:8).  It was a feast that came fifty days after the Feast of Firstfruits that remembered the miracle of the crossing of the Red Sea and which signaled the beginning of the harvest season.  God commanded that the annual Feast of Firstfruits was to fall on the day after the Sabbath of the Holy Week of the Feasts of Passover and Unleavened Bread, an eight-day festival period.  This means the feast of Firstfruits, from the time it was commanded at Mt. Sinai, always fell on a Sunday (Leviticus 23:9-14).  The Jewish feast of Firstfruits was the day on which Jesus rose from the tomb as the "firstfruits" of the great "harvest" of redeemed souls into God's "storehouse" of heaven (1Corinthians 15:20-23)!

For the Old Covenant people of God, the Feast of Shavuot/Pentecost, which came fifty days after the Feast of Firstfruits, remembered the coming of Yahweh to Israel on Mt. Sinai to establish the Old Covenant Church.  For Christians, however, it became the celebration of the birth of the universal Church when God the Holy Spirit came to fill and indwell the New Covenant people of God who were waiting and praying in the Upper Room (Acts 1:4-12; 2:1-6).  It was on the very day that the Old Covenant Feast of Weeks, known as "Pentecost" or 50th day in Jesus' time, celebrated the theophany of God coming down in fire to Israel upon Mt. Sinai (Ex 19:17-18).  On that day, the Holy Spirit came in tongues of fire to the Virgin Mary and the 120 faithful disciples of Jesus, the Redeemer-Messiah, praying in the Upper Room.  This miracle established the New Israel, the Universal/Catholic Church of Jesus Christ.

For more information on the connection between the Old Covenant seven annual holy feast days and God's plan for the coming of the Messiah see the chart "The Seven Sacred Annual Feasts of the Old Covenant" and the document "The Second Great Pentecost" on the Agape Bible Study website.

Michal Hunt, Copyright © 2003, revised 2020 Agape Bible Study. Permissions All Rights Reserved.