Saint Thomas of Canterbury, Bolton

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Lent and Easter

What's so special about Forty?



 Jesus Tempted.jpg

For forty days and nights Jesus was in the wilderness.


It's becoming quite commonplace nowadays to see a notice tied to traffic lights, or strung across a wall, or planted on a roundabout, announcing to the world at large that "So-and-So is 40". What used to be regarded almost as coming under the official secrets act is now proudly displayed for all to see. But why 40? What's so special about forty?

The same question, "what's so special about forty?", could be asked by readers of the Bible. The number forty occurs many times in the Bible, right the way through from the Book of Genesis and into the New Testament.

We hear about a new beginning with Noah, after the Flood which had lasted forty days and nights and wiped out all in the world that was evil.

On Mount Sinai, where he received the Ten Commandments, Moses spent forty days and nights, without food and drink, in prayer, ready to receive God's word.

The prophet Elijah journeyed for forty days and nights through the desert to reach Mount Sinai, and find reassurance of God's presence and power in his mission.

The prophet Jonah preached repentance to the people of Niniveh, and they turned back to God, fasting for forty days and nights, and were saved.

Now all this is not just a question of mere coincidence. You see, the number forty has symbolic value in these stories. The biblical sign of forty days is, in fact, a reminder of the greatest event in the history of Jewish People - the Exodus. That was when God brought the Hebrew slaves out of Egypt, when He led them through the waters of the Red Sea and struck down their enemies, when He delivered them into freedom and made them His own People. For forty years they wandered through the desert until, under God's protection, they reached the Promised Land.

That is the source of the forty days. The authors of the Bible knew that God is always with His People, always caring for them. What's so special about the symbol of forty days is that it points to a particular event as a special action of God, reaching out to rescue them from evil and offering them the chance of a new beginning.

In the Gospels we read that "the Spirit drove Jesus out into the wilderness and he remained there for forty days, and was tempted by Satan". This is telling us that here we have a special moment in the struggle between good and evil. This is a combat on behalf of us all between Jesus and Satan. This marks the beginning of our Lord's victory over temptation and sin. Only in the death/resurrection of Jesus will that victory be made complete.

At Easter we will gather to celebrate and to share in that victorious resurrection of Christ. We will rejoice with the risen Lord who, during a period of forty days, appeared to his disciples before ascending to his Father. 

In the meantime God offers to us this holy season of the forty days of Lent to prepare for Easter. Through the season of Lent the forty days of Jesus in the desert are extended to us. It is for us too, a precious moment, a very special time when God is reaching out for us, wanting to raise us up, offering us the chance of a new beginning.

Lent does not replace our normal round of everyday tasks. Life goes on very much as usual, whether humdrum or hectic, exciting or worrying, with its usual mix of demands, upsets, pleasures, hopes and fears. We are still caught up with the normal expectations of home and work, and so on. No, Lent does not remove us from our daily life. And that is important - for it is precisely in our everyday life that God is reaching out to us.

An old love song used to proclaim: "There is no other you". That is true of everyone. There is no other you than the one who is caught up in your own everyday existence. It is right there, in the midst of all the demands, upsets, pleaures, hopes and fears that make up your life that God loves you. There is no other you for Him to love! And it is precisely to this one and only you that God is offering this special time of the forty days of Lent, wanting to draw you closer to Himself, offering the opportunity of a new begining, promising you grace.

He invites us to be united with His Son in fasting: not a fasting imposed through shortage, nor as a punishment (even less as a slimming excerise or an endurance test). Our fasting is a witness to the love of God, an expression of our repentance, a token of our desire for spiritual renewal. Our fasting, especially when it is linked with practical love for others, prepares us to welcome and respond more freely to God's outpouring of love.

He invites us to be united with His Son in prayer: not necessarily prayers of many words, but above all prayerful listening to and pondering on the Word of God. During Lent we are given an abundance of rich selections from the Scriptures. This is a wonderful time to read and to reflect, to spend some time in silence, to let God speak. In the silence of the heart, even in the most frantic moments of life, He invites us: "be still and know that I am God".