Lent: So What’s Up with the Number 40?

number 40 on purple textured background

“These forty days of Lent, O Lord, to you we fast and pray…”  We all know that Lent has 40 days, but it may cause us to wonder about the significance of the number 40. Did you know that the number 40 appears in the Bible nearly 200 times? What’s up with that?

In the Bible, the number 40 is symbolic and represents a significant period of time during which an individual’s faith is tested. What is Lent? It is a significant period of time during which our faith is tested. Another word for test is examination or assessment. During Lent, we assess where we are in terms of our commitment to the Lord.

A good way to help our students begin Lent is to help them assess themselves. In the Catholic Tradition, we call this an examination of conscience. By doing an examination of conscience, we can identify the areas of our lives where we need to grow. Then we can develop an action plan for Lent so that our prayer, fasting, and almsgiving have a clear focus.

Back to the number 40. Whenever we see the number 40 in the Bible, we are being alerted to symbolic significance. The Catholic Church does not adhere to a literal translation of the Bible but recognizes that the truth of the Bible is expressed in many forms, including figurative language. If not, it would be an incredible coincidence that everything during biblical times took either 40 days and nights or 40 years!

A fun exercise with kids is to invite them to brainstorm examples of figurative language that they are familiar with (e.g. it’s raining cats and dogs). In this way they come to see that something may be true but not necessarily fact—an important concept to help them understand that Catholics believe the Bible is without error when it comes to truth.

Of course, we can also send students on a Scripture search to locate and describe uses of the number 40 in Scripture. Here are just a few.

  • Genesis 7, 8 (Noah)
  • Exodus 24:18 (Moses on the mountaintop)
  • Deuteronomy 8:2 (Israel in the desert)
  • 2 Samuel 5 (David’s reign)
  • 1 Kings 19:8 (Elijah)
  • 2 Chronicles 9:30 (Solomon’s reign)
  • Jonah 3:4 (Jonah)
  • Matthew 4:2/Mark 1:13/Luke 4:2 (Jesus in the desert)
  • Acts 1:3 (The Risen Christ’s appearances)

Find a Lenten book to accompany you this season.

About Joe Paprocki 2742 Articles
Joe Paprocki, DMin, is National Consultant for Faith Formation at Loyola Press, where, in addition to his traveling/speaking responsibilities, he works on the development team for faith formation curriculum resources including Finding God: Our Response to God’s Gifts and God’s Gift: Reconciliation and Eucharist. Joe has more than 35 years of experience in ministry and has presented keynotes, presentations, and workshops in more than 100 dioceses in North America. Joe is a frequent presenter at national conferences including the Los Angeles Religious Education Congress, the Mid-Atlantic Congress, and the National Conference for Catechetical Leadership. He is the author of numerous books, including the best seller The Catechist’s Toolbox, A Church on the Move, Under the Influence of Jesus, and Called to Be Catholic—a bilingual, foundational supplemental program that helps young people know their faith and grow in their relationship with God. Joe is also the series editor for the Effective Catechetical Leader and blogs about his experiences in faith formation at www.catechistsjourney.com.

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