Lent – why forty and what do they mean?

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 have a name for this season that is derived from the word for forty. It is the season of the forty days.

 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? 

Forty was a significant number in 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?  

Well, they 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. Remember it is forty weeks that a woman carries her developing baby before a new life can come forth from the womb.

 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 chiselled 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 labour lying down.  When Jesus begins his mission of liberation, there is another slave master who is no more willing than Pharaoh to let his minions go without a fight.

 The temptation of Jesus in the desert shows us the tactics of the devil. 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. 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.  

 Jesus’ response to the devil is a clear example we can follow.  His wrestling match with the devil is won so we can know 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 what about our forty days?  It can be a time to use the tactics modelled by our captain and break the strongholds. Prayer, fasting, humble service.  If we make careful use of them during Lent, a time 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.