Letters to Peregrinus #14 - On Sufficient Time

Dear Peregrinus (Saturday, 4 PM):

You asked me why the liturgical season of Lent lasts for “forty days.” You thought this a terribly random length of time. You considered how the “seasons” – Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter – are never forty days long, but rather each one is some three months long. You then noticed how we talk of months – anywhere from twenty-nine to thirty-one days. Even sports seasons, you said, are never forty days … but longer than that. Finally, because you have read Dan Brownʼs novels with great interest – The Da Vinci Code, etc. – you concluded that the number “40” must have some secret significance, a symbol. All of this compelled you to ask me, “Why does Lent last for forty days?”

Well, Peregrinus, your question got me in touch with a longing in myself for the constraining of the Presidential election cycle in our country to forty days! What a consolation that would be! Only forty days. Period. When I was a boy I recall that men ran for President – at least in an explicitly campaigning way – only when the year of the Presidential election was to take place. But over the course of our lives, yours and mine, we have seen explicit campaigning commence in the case of incumbents within the first year of their four-year terms! “Iʼll do this in my first Term, but in my second Term,” etc. Their legislating is done (if they actually do it and do not skip that step) with the elections in mind two years down the line and four years down the line.

Anyway, my real point is that I want to begin to answer your question by asking you another one. It is this: How much time do we need to change, to become significantly better than we are? What is a sufficient amount of time for you or me to decide something, or to achieve through practice some significant change in our way of doing a particular edition of a “normal” life?

Do you see what I am doing here? Instead of answering your question, I am attempting (subtle Master!) to ask the question that will actually get you to what really you need to know about Lent, and it in relation to its length of time.

But allow me to recall some history. At the first truly ecumenical, general Council of the whole Christian Church (East and West), in the year 325 CE, and at which attended some 250 Bishops from all over the Christian world, we find written in Canon V of the official documentation the following line concerning how often Bishops in local regions ought to meet together as a group, as a “synod”: “The synods, however, are to be held as follows: one before Quadragesima [i.e., Lent, or in the original Greek here, tesserákonta], so that with the removal of every sentiment of meanness of spirit, an acceptable gift may be offered to God; the other in the autumn of the year.” [1] This is the first time “Lent” appears in official record in the Christian Church and referring to a preparatory set of days – forty of them – before Easter.

Notice how Lent names an official “season” of liturgical time happening before Easter, but also how the Council connects its practice to the expunging of “meanness of spirit” from the assembly of Bishops gathered as a Synod twice a year. Lent, from the beginning, was about giving Christians (in this case, Bishops) sufficient time – twice each year – for them to help each other repent their “meanness of spirit” and to grow in union of mind and heart with one another.

Because I know that you are prayerful man, and I know of your habit of reading daily from the Scriptures, I am certain that you have seen how often the number forty appears in the Bible, where it is often associated with the “sufficient length of time” that God decides is necessary for His people to bear a trial or to endure a testing. It means just the right amount of time, not more than that, not less than that. Jesus was tested for forty days and forty nights in the Wilderness; Noah and his family on the Ark sailed for forty days and forty nights as the whole Earth was flooded by God; the people of God after having been brought out of Egypt by Moses wandered in the Wilderness for forty years. There are many more examples of this particular use of “forty” in the Bible. It is, Dan Brown-like, symbolic – this use of “forty.” However, it is not merely symbolic.

God is never random, but God acts from wisdom and from a profound interior grasp of the kind of people we are. Psalm 139 famously sings of just how comprehensive is Godʼs grasp of the kind of creature we humans are:

13 You formed my inmost being;
you knit me in my motherʼs womb.
14 I praise you, because I am wonderfully made;
wonderful are your works!
My very self you know.
15 My bones are not hidden from you,
When I was being made in secret,
fashioned in the depths of the earth.
16 Your eyes saw me unformed;
in your book all are written down;
my days were shaped, before one came to be. [2]

So what the biblical record suggests is that “forty” refers to whatever length of time God judges sufficient for you, or for me, or for us as persons to achieve a significant change of heart or mind. In this sense, and in relation to Godʼs exceptional skill with us, “forty” days or years means just exactly the right amount of time God judges that we need.

In short, “forty” in the biblical understanding of it does refer to a length of time, but it does not mean clock-time; i.e., it does not actually mean forty days or years counted out on the calendar. Rather, the biblical “forty” refers to relational-time; i.e., it refers to whatever length of time is needed for a person or a group of persons or a nation or a world Church to accept and to begin to get the hang of a profound grace of transformation.

Pope Francis I, for example, judged that in this broken world of name-calling, blaming, and scapegoating, the Catholic Church, affected by these same corrosive ills, would require something much longer than Lent to get the hang of the divine mercy – really to understand it and then to deepen our understanding of it by giving mercy to others. Pope Francis judged that the Church would need an entire calendar year, no mere forty days! And so he proclaimed that a Jubilee Year of Mercy be celebrated – from 8 December 2015 to 20 November 2016 (i.e., ending on the solemnity of Christ the King). It is the Churchʼs “forty” this year.

You asked me a good question, Peregrinus, when you asked me “Why does Lent last for forty days?” I responded by asking you another question, because I sensed what really you might be wanting to know. I asked you “How much time does Lent need to be?” And to find a good answer to that, you and I find ourselves needing to check our availability (or not) to allowing a real change for the good to be embraced in our lives and in our following of Christ. We end up asking ourselves, “So, how much time is sufficient for me to change?” And if I know my “forty,” then why not commit to it … and let God and the people of God help me get through it, to “win” a significant change in my life?

Your good friend in Christ,

Rick, SJ


[1] H. J. Schroeder, Disciplinary Decrees of the General Councils: Text, Translation, and Commentary (St. Louis, MO; London: B. Herder Book Co., 1937), 28.

[2] New American Bible (Revised Edition.; Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), Ps 139m13–16.
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