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Lent and Easter by the Numbers

Forty days, three days, fifty days—there's a lot of calendar-counting this time of year. Don't mess it up!

Easter is the central feast of the Church’s calendar: a whole quarter of the liturgical year is directly taken up either by preparation for (Lent) or participation in and celebration of (the Paschal Triduum, Eastertide) the passion, death, and resurrection of Christ. St. Paul reminds us it’s the central truth of the Faith, upon which everything else rests: without the Resurrection, Christianity is a fraud, and we are a hopeless lot (1 Cor 15:12-19).

So Lent and Easter are important. We spend forty days preparing to mark the three days of Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection (and his three days in the tomb) followed by fifty days of Paschal celebration.

But wait! Some people take out their calendars and can’t see the 40-3-50. Are they arithmetically challenged? Do we need to upgrade Core Curriculum mathematics standards?

No. Let’s look at Lent and Easter by the numbers.

First, there’s Lent. “These forty days of Lent, O Lord / with you we fast and pray” goes the hymn. Lent started February 22. Easter falls on April 9. How do we get forty days? Isn’t it more like . . . forty-seven?

It might seem that way, but try counting it with this in mind: every Sunday . . . already a “little Easter” over sin and death. And so, when you take the Sundays out of the reckoning and add the Paschal Triduum, you get the Church’s iconic forty days.

Every Sunday—even in Lent—is a “little Easter.” We gather on Sundays because it is the Lord’s day of resurrection. Sundays are never days of penance. They are always days of celebration of Christ’s victory over sin and death.

The Paschal Triduum, which will be discussed below, is today a distinct liturgical period. That said, the penitential character of those days associated with Jesus’ passion and death—i.e., Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday—were also traditionally calculated into the “forty days” of Lent. It’s one reason, for example, that although Holy Thursday evening Mass celebrates the institution of the Eucharist with white vestments and the first Gloria since before Ash Wednesday, the Church reverts to a penitential ethos, and Corpus Christi was later instituted to focus on the Eucharist (which is always Christ’s sacrifice) without the full sorrowful hue of the Paschal Triduum over it.

Why forty? Again, two reasons:

First, in imitation of Jesus’s own fast and temptation in the desert. The three Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke) all affirm that, immediately after his baptism in the Jordan by John and prior to starting his public ministry, Jesus spent forty preparatory days in prayer and fasting in the desert of Judea, during which he was tempted by Satan. As Jesus prepared for his ministry—a ministry that culminated in his death and resurrection—so we prepare for that culmination by our own fasting and penance (since we, unlike Jesus, have sins to be forgiven of).

Second, Jesus’ own forty-day fast does not come out of nowhere. It is a conscious model of the forty years that Israel wandered the desert of Sinai from the end of its slavery in Egypt until its coming into the Promised Land. The people of Israel saw God’s great deeds on their behalf in the plagues of Egypt and their miraculous escape from Pharaoh, yet the least hardship elicited fond memories of the “fleshpots of Egypt.” I remember a Polish rabbi once saying that the forty years in the desert were not just a punishment for Israel’s lingering idolatries, but a necessity: the generation that still missed those fleshpots was incapable of building a free people. Likewise, despite our own Red Sea passage in baptism, Lent’s annual journey through the penitential desert helps us slough off our own fleshpot attachments.

Then comes the Paschal Triduum. The “three holiest days” of the Church year, commemorating the one mystery (because you cannot split these elements apart) of Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection, make up the Paschal Triduum. How do we get “three days”?

By counting the days as Israel would have and considering how the Church’s liturgy functions. The Paschal Triduum does not begin on the morning of Holy Thursday. That’s still part of Lent. In the Church of the first centuries, it was the morning the Church reconciled adulterers, apostates, and murderers to itself and, in more recent times, when bishops traditionally celebrated the Chrism Mass with their priests (now often transferred, out of convenience, to another day in Holy Week).

The Paschal Triduum starts in the evening of Holy Thursday. That’s when the Church celebrates the Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper and when priests pray First Evening Prayer for the Paschal Triduum. The Triduum extends to Second Evening Prayer of Easter Sunday—i.e., sometime on Easter Sunday evening. So from Thursday to Friday evening, then to Saturday evening, then to Sunday evening . . . three days.

So how did Jesus lie in the tomb for “three days”? A different, but similar sort of count, based on reckoning the Jewish day from dusk.

Jesus died at about 3 P.M. on Good Friday afternoon—i.e., when the sun, though eclipsed, had not yet set. Day one. From sunset of Good Friday to sunset of Holy Saturday: day two. Since Jesus rose on the night of Easter Sunday, he rose in the course of day three.

Finally, there’s Eastertide. “The joy of the Resurrection fills the whole world,” repeats one of the Easter prefaces, and that joy cannot be contained in a mere twenty-four hours. “This is the day the Lord has made,” we sing, because it is the day that changed everything. Henceforth, graves were no longer on one-way streets. Henceforth, sin and death—though still not without a certain bite—were themselves doomed. Henceforth, the final history of the world was set in the triumph of God and good.

How do you celebrate that in one day and then go to work Monday morning, as if nothing had happened?

You don’t have to—not liturgically, at least. That’s because the Easter season is a celebration of the Resurrection, that one great victory, as one unified season, as you’ll notice based on how the Mass is treated from Easter Sunday until the day before Pentecost.  So that gets us past just one day—only forty-nine left to explain.

In ancient Israel, numbers had significance. Seven was a perfect number. Seven times seven (i.e., perfection times perfection) equals forty-nine. Add one on top of perfection to make fifty—the fifty days of Easter.

Like Jesus’ sojourn in the desert, the Church also did not pull Pentecost out of thin air. For one, it is historically grounded: the Holy Spirit actually descended on the apostles that day. For another, the feast is prefigured in Jewish tradition. Shavuot, the “feast of weeks,” was celebrated in the Jewish calendar fifty days after Passover, which, of course, is a prefigurement of the Christian passover of Christ from death to life at his resurrection.

That the Church invests a quarter of its liturgical calendar in these seasons and, because Easter is both central and moveable, no small part of the rest of the calendar is affected by it (e.g., the length of Ordinary Time both after Christmas and after Pentecost), it ought to be clear that these are important days. Receiving God’s graces, let’s employ them to their maximum to be “holy and blameless in his sight” (Col. 1:22).

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