On the first Sunday of Lent, we always hear the gospel account of Jesus’ temptation in the desert: 40 days of prayer and fasting; 40 days of being tried and tested by the devil.
Thus, our own Lent lasts for forty days because that’s the time that Jesus put into the desert. But, if we take our penance and fasting seriously, we might ask: Why forty rather than seven or ten days?
“Forty” does seems to be a favorite number in the Scriptures: Noah and company were in the ark for 40 days; Moses spent 40 days on Mount Sinai receiving the Ten Commandments; and, of course, the Hebrews spent 40 years wandering the desert. But even outside of the Scriptures, the number “forty” is not insignificant: Consider that a woman carries her baby in her womb for approximately 40 weeks before a new life comes forth from her womb. Perhaps these “forties” are a necessary and not-so-comfortable prelude to something new.
For Noah, it was the rebirth of a sinful world cleansed by floodwaters. For Moses, it was the birth of the people of the Covenant. For the wandering tribes of Israel, it was the start of a settled life in the Promised Land. And Jesus’ forty days was the prelude to the birth of a new Israel, the Church.
But that something new does not come about easily – it does not come without a struggle. In the story of Moses, we remember that the Pharaoh did not want the Hebrews to go out into the desert to sacrifice to their God. He did not countenance the lost of his cheap labor supply. And when Jesus begins his mission, there is a different slave master who doesn’t want his minions to go without a fight.
St. Paul says: “If you confess with your lips and believe in your heart that Jesus Christ is Lord, you will be saved.” (cf. Romans 10: 9) This sounds easier than St. Paul meant it to be. “Confessing that Jesus is Lord” means more than “lip service”, it means readiness to accept the implications of his Lordship in our own lives. There can be no real confession of faith in the Lord without a real surrender to the Lord.
And that surrender is the project of our Christian life – and each day we must surrender ourselves to the Lord in a conscious turning away from sin – that is, all that is not of the Lord – and a turning to Him and his will – with all our hearts, minds and souls. And this is not easy – because as Saint Paul also reminds us: “Our battle is not against flesh and blood” (Ephesians 6: 12). The devil doesn’t let us go easily – and the temptations of Jesus show us the devil’s tactics – his designs to keep us from surrendering to the Lord by seeking to seduce us through his false promises of power, pleasure or possessions.
Lent reminds us that we are called to holiness; and the Church by telling us to fast, pray and sacrifice in a more intense way during these 40 days, reminds us – in the words of John Paul II: that “it would be a contradiction for us to settle for a life of mediocrity, with a minimalist ethic and a superficial religiosity.”
Perhaps, given the tendency of the human spirit to grow faint in the face of obstacles, to become discourage in the face of setbacks, to grow cold in the face of routine, Lent is a necessary stop along our journey through life. We could call it a ”pregnant pause” in our usual routines – a necessary and maybe not so comfortable prelude to something new in our own spiritual lives.