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We have spent the last two years going in and out of periods of quarantine, and there is a surprising connection between these quarantines and the season of Lent. In French, Italian and Spanish, all of the words for Lent derive from the Latin word for the 40th day before something: quadragesima. So, in Italian, Lent is known as quaresima; in Spanish it is cuaresma, in French careme.

The 40 days of Lent made a deep impression on European culture. When the bubonic plague first arrived in Europe in the 1300s, medical officials in Italy wisely insisted that infected ships wait offshore for a few weeks. In Italian, the wait time was called “quaranta giorni” (40 days). In English, this term became known as a “quarantine.” Why did the ships have to wait for 40 days? Scholars believe that for the Italians, and the rest of the Europeans, Lent had imprinted in everyone’s minds that 40 days was an appropriate amount of time for waiting. Lent was rooted in the Bible’s many periods of 40 days – the Flood, Christ’s time in the wilderness, Moses’ time of fasting on the mountain, etc… So Lent helped influence medical science to adopt 40 days as the proper “quarantine” period.

In time, the word quarantine evolved, and came to mean any time of isolation during infection. Perhaps we should consider this shift in meaning a blessing. If we still took the word quarantine literally, those of us who were infected with Covid might have had to spend 40 days in our rooms. One 40-day period of Lent is more than enough!




Rev. Stephen Milton