Forty Days, Forty Ways
[Deut.26:4-10; Rom.10:8-13; Lk.4:1-13]
How often is the number 40 mentioned in the Bible? Over 150 times. This is significant, because numbers are never used randomly in Scripture. They always mean something.
Some say that ‘40’ is Biblical code for ‘a very long time’, but if you look carefully, you can see that it’s very often connected with stories of trial or hardship before something new begins.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus fasts and prays in the desert for 40 days and nights before starting his public ministry. But we also know that he later ascends to heaven 40 days after his resurrection (Acts 1:3).
And going back into Biblical history, Noah’s flood lasts for 40 days (Gen.7:17). The Israelites wander in the desert for 40 years (Dt.8:2-5). And Moses waits for 40 days and nights on Mt Sinai for the Ten Commandments (Ex.34:28).
Each time, this waiting always precedes a new beginning.
After Noah’s flood, a new civilisation begins. After crossing the desert, the Israelites start a new life in the Promised Land. Moses’ Ten Commandments mark God’s new Covenant with all mankind. Jesus’ public ministry marks the beginning of a new way of life for everyone. And his Ascension opens the way for the Holy Spirit to descend on his disciples (Jn.16:7).
Today is the first Sunday of Lent, and Lent, of course, is the season of 40 days before we celebrate Easter.
Just as we spent 40 weeks in our mother’s womb before our birth, so now we’re being invited to spend these 40 days preparing for something very new.
Deep down, we all seek a life that’s rich in meaning, purpose and love. We all want to live our best lives. Lent is a good opportunity to work towards that by making time for quiet reflection, by working through our flaws and fears, and by opening ourselves up to the freshness of Jesus Christ.
But for all that to happen, we must first lose our distractions, and that’s why we’re all encouraged to spend some time in the desert, just as Jesus did.
In the early Church, many religious men and women literally went into a desert for a while. These days, the desert is more likely to be a quiet, spiritual place where we go to reflect. But our focus remains the same.
Traditionally, the focus of Lent has always been on the three ‘pillars’ of fasting, almsgiving and prayer (Mt.6:1-6,16-18). These are excellent ways for us to look beyond ourselves and to strengthen our relationship with Jesus Christ.
But these words may be too vague for some people today. Perhaps that’s why they’ve found past Lents unfruitful. Here, Marcellino D’Ambrosio’s book Forty Days, Forty Ways: A new Look at Lent, could be helpful. [i]
In it, he offers us forty practical suggestions for things to do in Lent, including Lenten resolutions, fasting and prayer, learning, works of mercy and refocusing our priorities. Some people have found this book very helpful.
But if you Google ‘40 ideas for Lent’, you’ll find many other creative things to do, as well. One suggestion, called ‘40 Items in 40 Days’, challenges us to find one thing each day that we really don’t need, and to either give it away or throw it away. Clearing our cupboards helps us clear our minds, and by detaching ourselves from ‘things’, we can much better attach ourselves to God. [ii]
But here’s another suggestion: Commit to a daily time of quiet prayer, but don’t do all the talking. Simply listen to God instead, and one good place to do this is at Eucharistic adoration.
And why not cut back on luxuries, and give the savings to the poor? Or start and end each day free of electronic media? (Focus on people, not pixels.)
Or read or listen to a saint’s story each day. Or write a letter of thanks to someone who has changed your life. [iii]
There are many family activities as well, like everyone one day wearing purple, the colour of penitence. Or working together to design a meatless menu for Fridays.
Or discussing the story of the Last Supper at dinnertime.
Or each day, everyone praying for the same intention, or performing a random act of kindness, or doing something special for the people of Ukraine.
Or even baking pretzels with your family. Did you know that the original pretzel shape mirrored the crossed arms of a child in prayer? [iv]
There are so many interesting things we can learn and do in Lent.
Let’s use these 40 days to prepare ourselves for something very special – a deeper and more loving relationship with Jesus.