This week we celebrate Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the Lenten season, which lasts for about 40 days. This 40 day time period has several precedents in the Bible, each of which gives themes for Lent. First, the Great Flood began with 40 days of rain and ended with the replacement of a sinful society with a new time of grace. Then, Moses ascended twice Mount Sinai for 40 days.
During the first 40 days of prayer he received a vision of heavenly glory and the law of God. Then, after the people worshipped the golden calf, he ascended Mount Sinai asking God to forgive His people. About 500 years later, the prophet Elijah travelled to Mount Horeb and there prayed for 40 days gaining God’s instructions for his ministry in the face of persecution from Queen Jezebel.
About a century later, Jonah proclaimed God’s justice to Nineveh, and they prayed and did penance for 40 days, leading the way to God’s forgiveness. And, most importantly, Jesus fasted and prayed in the desert for 40 days after His baptism to prepare for His public ministry.
The first theme to draw from these precedents is the repentance and cleansing of sins. As the waters of the Great Flood washed away a sinful civilization, so the waters of repentance break the power of sin in our lives. We pray for our own cleansing and that of the world around us, as Moses and the people of Nineveh did in their days. And when we receive God’s healing power, we become free to ascend in the spirit towards the throne of God as Moses did on Mount Sinai.
As with him, and later Jesus in the desert, we train our souls for this quest by giving up comforts of this earth and thus awakening in our hearts a desire for greater things. Lenten penances help accomplish this two-fold goal, of repairing the damage from sin and strengthening the soul that we may converse with God. That life of prayer, however, is not for us alone, but enables us to bring God’s message to others by word and action.
And so, as with Elijah on Mount Horeb and Jesus in the desert, the 40 days of Lent is a time of asking how it is we can bring the Gospel to the world around us. The remaining articles of Lent will reflect more upon the lessons we can take now from each of these 40 day events long ago.