Forty Days of New Life
By: Dr. Marcellino D'Ambrosio
This article covers why Lent has forty days, the meaning of the number 40 in the Old and New Testament, and the meaning of the fasting and temptation of Jesus Christ in the Desert. It was originally written as a commentary on the scripture readings for the first Sunday in Lent.
In the English language, the special season before Easter is called “Lent.” The word comes from the “lengthening” of daylight hours as we progress from the darkness of winter to the new light of spring. But other languages, such as Spanish, have a name for this season that is derived from the word for forty. It is the season of the forty days.
OK, we do penance for forty days because Jesus fasted forty days in the wilderness. But did you ever wonder why he was out there for forty days rather than seven or ten or fifty?
Think back to the Old Testament. Noah and company in the Ark watched rain fall for 40 days and forty nights. Moses was up on Sinai receiving the 10 commandments for 40 days. The Israelites wandered around the desert for 40 years.
So why all these forties? Probably because it is forty weeks that a woman carries her developing baby before a new life can come forth from the womb.
All these “forties” are a necessary and not-so-comfortable prelude for something new. In Noah’s case, it’s the rebirth of a sinful world that had been cleansed by raging flood waters. In Moses’ case, it was the birth of the people of the covenant. For the nomadic Israelites, it was the start of a new, settled existence in the Promised land.
And Jesus? What did his forty days mean? The birth of a new Israel liberated from sin, reconciled to God, and governed by the law of the Spirit rather than a law chiseled in stone.
But think back to the story of Moses and the Israelites. There was someone who did not want them to go out into the desert to offer sacrifice to their God. Pharaoh did not take the loss of his cheap labor lying down. When Jesus begins his mission of liberation, there is another slave master who is no more willing than Pharoah to let his minions go without a fight.
Since the sixties, it has been fashionable in some quarters to dismiss the devil as a relic of ancient mythology or medieval fantasy. The guy with the pointy tale and the pitchfork comes in handy in cartoons and costume parties, but how can we take such an image seriously? In the Bible, they say, let’s read “Satan” merely as a symbol of human evil.
Such a view is clearly at odds with Scripture, Tradition, and recent teaching of the Magisterium. Our battle is not against flesh and blood, says St. Paul. If you don’t know your enemy and his tactics, you are bound to lose.
The temptation of Jesus in the desert shows us the tactics of the “Dark Lord.” Bread, a symbol for all that sustains our physical life, is a great blessing. But Satan tries to make material things the ultimate, distracting us from a deeper hunger and a more enduring food. Political power and all leadership is intended by God for the sake of serving the common good; Satan twists things to make leaders self-seeking, oppressive tyrants like himself. The lust for power and fame ironically leads not to dominion but to slavery to the Dark Lord (remember what happened to the Nazghoul in the Lord of the Rings). Then there’s religious temptation, the trickiest of them all-- Manipulating God for our own glory, using his gifts to make people look at us rather than at Him. Sounds a lot like the Pharisees.
Jesus triumphs in this first wrestling match. He shows us how to keep from being pinned. Fasting breaks undue attachments to material blessings and stimulates our spiritual appetite. Humble service breaks the stranglehold of pride. The reverent worship of authentic faith breaks the full nelson of superstition, magic, and all arrogant religion. And the word of God is shown as the sword of the Spirit, the secret weapon that slashes through the enemy’s lies.
So our forty days? Time to use the tactics modeled by our captain and break the strongholds. Prayer, fasting, humble service. The heavenly bread of the Eucharist and the Word of God. If we make use of them diligently during this season, pregnant with possibilities, we can enter into greater freedom. Darkness can give way to increasing light. Something new and wonderful can be born in us.
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This article originally appeared in Our Sunday Visitor as a reflection on the readings for the scripture readings for the First Sunday of Lent, cycle C (Deuteronomy 26:4-10; Psalm 91; Romans 10:8-13; Luke 4:1-13). It is reproduced here with permission of the author.
For 40 ways to get more out of Lent, click here.
For other great Catholic Resources for Lent, Holy Week and Easter, visit the Prayer & Spirituality, Easter Season, and the Lent & Holy Week sections of The Crossroads Initiative Library.
I Believe - The Heart of Catholic Faith
First given as a Lenten retreat, this is an awesome 4 session program to revitalize your faith and prepare you for the joy of Easter. Great for individuals or families or small groups. The workbook is a treasure of discussion questions, devotions and spiritual exercises that can serve as an easy-to-follow roadmap through the Lent or Holy Week that will break you out of stale patterns and enrich both your prayer and your understanding of the central truths of the Catholic faith, empowering you to share that faith with others.
Come to the Table - Meredith Gould
Come to the Table is for anyone seeking to integrate the traditions of Judaism and Christianity. Interfaith families will find it an especially useful companion during Passover and Holy Week. An amazing book that invites Christians to more fully appreciate Last Seder where Jesus established the Eucharist as a sacrament.
Making the Most out of Lent - CD
Lent is not just about giving up junk food – it is about improving your own spiritual nutrition, and sharing the bread of life with a hungry world. In this talk you'll learn about the biblical and historical origins of the season, how we got the idea that Lent is about "giving stuff up," and how we can nourish ourselves spiritually so that we'll be different people when the Easter Alleluias finally sound in our ears this year.
SUGAR FREE - Winrgy®
Winrgy is an invigorating, citrus-flavored energy and mental performance drink loaded with vitamins, minerals and amino acids that will help you stay energized and focused — so you can work, play and perform at your best.
This Winrgy includes Food for Thought right in the mix!
Exploring the Catholic Church
Exploring the Catholic Church: An Introduction to Catholic Teaching and Practice by Dr. Marcellino D'Ambrosio is an accessible, affordable Roman Catholic Book--perfect gift for anyone!! -- the inactive Catholic, the Sunday Catholic wanting to know more, Protestants who want to know why Catholics do what they do.