The subject arises because tomorrow is the first Sunday of Lent, but Lent begins on Ash Wednesday—which always falls on a day 46 days before Easter Sunday. In Catholic tradition, the period is known as Quadragesima, literally the “fortieth,” in common usage “the forty days”. But when this tradition first took root—late in the sixth century when St. Gregory the Great was pope (590-604), he thought of Lent as a form of spiritual “tithing”; therefore fasting and repentance (the central focus of this period), was a period of 36 days, which, rounded, makes a tenth of the year. So how does all of this sort out?
Let’s take it one step at a time and answer first what might have come first: 40 or 36? Forty seems to have come first. As the Catholic Encyclopedia puts it (link), “In determining this period of forty days the example of Moses, Elias, and Christ must have exercised a predominant influence.” All three underwent a 40-day fast. The 36 days came about because fasting on Sundays (and every Sunday is a celebration of Christ’s resurrection) is inappropriate. Six weeks produce 42 days. Deducting the Sundays produces that 36-day period.
Let us next see how the duration of the length of Lent became 46 days. This comes about because of that “predominant influence” the Catholic Encyclopedia talks about. Yes. The fast ought to be 40 days, not an abbreviated 36. Some period after Gregory, a couple of centuries later as best as I can determine, four more days of fasting (workdays) were added—thus the four days beginning with Ash Wednesday and ending on the Saturday before the First Sunday of Lent. Simple, really. Lent is 46 days. Six Sundays fall into that period. Take those away and you end up with a nice clean 40 days of fasting.
A final note. Easter is a holiday that combines the solar year, the lunar cycle, and the days of the week. Easter is always celebrated on the first Sunday after a full moon that appears after the vernal equinox. In North America the vernal equinox will be March 20 until and including 2102. The earliest possible Easter therefore will be March 22—assuming that the full moon falls on March 21 and March 22 is a Sunday. The latest possible date for Easter is April 19th, thus assuming that a new lunar cycle begins on the day of the vernal equinox.
We think our lives are complicated. Traditional ways are as complex as any other. Oh, I ought to add: Maundy Thursday this year will fall on April 2, exactly three days ahead of Easter Sunday. So what does “maundy” mean again? For an answer look for at this blog post here.