Lent, Easter and Symbolic Numbers

In the first centuries of Christianity, Sunday was called both the first day of the week and the eighth day of the week.  In both terms what underlay them was that Sunday was the feast of the resurrection.  It was the first day of the week because with it came a new beginning.  It was called by the strange name of the eighth day because the resurrection took us out of the cycle of life which ends in death.  The seven-day week in its simple going on and on was symbolic of the ever-recurring cycle of life ending in death as we see in nature.  Sunday is the eighth day because the resurrection brings that cycle to an end and takes us beyond death.

Then the Easter season (Easter to Pentecost) has its own numerical symbolism.  There are seven weeks to Eastertime and then it ends with a final Sunday – Pentecost Sunday.  So, there are eight eighth days in Eastertime including Easter Sunday and Pentecost Sunday.  That whole season in the early centuries of Christianity was called the Great Sunday.  It lasted 50 days, Pentecost being the 50th and the eighth eighth day.  The whole structure of the season is a celebration of and a reflection on the resurrection.

Lent developed differently; it developed later than Eastertime.  The original emphasis of the whole season was much more on the resurrection.  In Rome, the original Lent lasted for only three weeks, so began on what we would call now the fourth Sunday of Lent.  (The readings for weekdays change significantly for the last weeks of Lent because of this).

As time went on Lent was lengthened to six weeks.  Now six weeks does not make up forty days but forty-two days.  In fact, it amounted to thirty-six days because Christians did not fast on Sundays because it was always a celebration of the resurrection.  When the desire to bring the number up to forty days because of Jesus’ forty days in the desert became strong, four more days were added: Ash Wednesday, and the Thursday, Friday, and Saturday before the first Sunday of Lent.  And so we got the structure of Lent that we have now.

Lent’s origins lie in the preparation of catechumens for baptism which the whole community came to join in as a way of renewing their baptism.  This finds expression in the renewal of baptismal promises by the whole community at the Easter Vigil.

By Fr Frank O’Loughlin


Easter Season Faith Reflections


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