Recently I had a discussion with a devout person about the number of days in Great Lent. This person was concerned because, depending on what days you count, Great Lent in the Orthodox Church can be from forty to forty-eight days long. I explained to this person what I had learned: Great Lent is from Clean Monday to the Friday before Lazarus Saturday, which is forty days. The following eight days are not counted as Great Lent, but are a separate entity: Holy Week.
My friend was not content with my answer and began bringing up fine points that made it difficult to affirm with any certainty exactly which days count as Great Lent and exactly how many those days are.
And then it struck me. The question of number is completely the wrong question.
As I listened to my friend’s litany of minor problems related to counting the days of Great Lent, I realized that Great Lent is not a number of days, like a number of rocks on a wall or a number of apples in a tree. Great Lent is as long as Moses was on the Mountain with God. It is as long as Jesus was in the wilderness fasting a praying. Great Lent is not about a number of days, it is about an experience with God. Forty is the number given to the days Moses was with God on the Mountain and Jesus was in the wilderness praying because “forty” represents fullness.
Jesus prayed in the wilderness and Moses was on the mountain with God as long as was needed. They were apart with God for as long as was needed to accomplish what God had intended for that time apart. Similarly, Great Lent is as long as is necessary. We don’t need more time and less wouldn’t do. If we cannot give ourselves completely to God in the forty days (however you count them), more days will not help; but it takes the full forty days to accomplish the transformation that is offered to us–this year, and each according to his or her ability. Great Lent is long enough to transform us, but not so long so as to discourage anyone.
Counting the days of Great Lent seems to miss the point. Forty days are the full time offered to us for the renewal of our repentance. It is the time Moses was on the mountain and Jesus was in the wilderness. It is enough time for our salvation.