Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, which in 2020 is on February 26.
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus “was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights” (Matthew 4:1). He did this to prepare for his public public ministry, which would culminate in the sacrifice of his life on Mount Calvary.
Following in Jesus’ footsteps, the Catholic Church instituted early on in its history a special season of fasting that lasts 40 days. It is meant to be a period of spiritual preparation and renewal, ending in the glorious celebration of Jesus’ resurrection.
Ash Wednesday marks the first day of this penitential season in the Roman Rite of the Catholic Church and is always 46 days before Easter Sunday. It is a “movable” feast that is assigned a date in the calendar only after the date of Easter Sunday is calculated.
How is it calculated?
According to the norms established by the Council of Nicaea (325 AD) and later adopted for Western Christianity at the Synod of Whitby, Easter Sunday falls each year on the first Sunday following the first full moon after the vernal equinox. This year the vernal equinox falls on Thursday, March 19, 2020 and the first full moon after that occurs on Tuesday, April 7, 2020. Therefore, Easter Sunday is celebrated this year on April 12. If you want Ash Wednesday, just count backwards 46 days and you get February 26, 2020.
But why 46? I thought Lent commemorated Jesus’ “40 days” in the desert.
The six Sundays in Lent are not considered part of the official “Lenten fast” (every Sunday is a special remembrance of the Resurrection of Christ), and so if you subtract six from 46, you get the famous 40 days of Lent.
This is why Lent begins on February 26, 2020.