There are a lot of references to forty days in the Bible. There is the flood—a time when the earth was swept clean of its unrighteousness and God promised never to do that again. Moses goes up to the mountain for forty days in order to receive the Ten Commandments. There is the Israelites wandering around lost in the wilderness for forty years because they refused to stop and ask for directions. Elijah goes on the run from Jezebel for forty days before he winds up in a cave and experiences God. Jonah warned Nineveh that God would destroy them in forty days if they did not change their ways. Jesus went into the wilderness for forty days after his baptism. There are forty days between Jesus’ resurrection and ascension. Though we see a whole lot of forty in scripture, the Bible never actually says it is an important number.
Forty seems an important number but often, in the Bible, a number is simply a number. Instead of getting focused on some hidden meaning lurking behind the number forty, I think that the number forty is just a number that means a long time and at the same time, offers hope that it won’t be too long a time. Think about it, forty days is basically five and a half weeks. That is a long time, but its not so long you start to despair. Its not a number that corresponds to the time it takes to make a behavior habitual. Its not a number that discourages someone through punishment. Its not a number that seems to have much significance other than what we might attribute to it. And we attribute a lot to it—most especially the season of Lent.
Forty days of Lent is biblical for all the reasons alluded too—we find forty in scripture a lot. But we also find a whole bunch of other number sin scripture. Forty seems to be that number that is most associated with a turn or a need to turn from one way of thinking or behaving to another. When Moses comes down with the Ten Commandments, the place has gone to the cows, or the golden calf to be more precise, and the Israelites are in definite need of turning and repenting. Elijah is on the run from Jezebel because he is afraid and it takes a visit from God to strengthen his resolve and courage to turn back and face his fears. Nineveh fasted and put ashes on their heads for forty days to avert disaster. Though Jesus did not need to repent, he was tested by his adversary the devil after forty days.
The season of Lent is upon us and lasts forty days. It is a time in which we are encouraged to give alms to the poor, fast, and pray as part of a disciplined life above and beyond our normal
spiritual disciplines. The point is not to be more pious or flaunt one’s holiness, but through intentional observance of the season to grow and nurture one’s life in Christ.
Way back in my youth ministry days, one of my youth took on the spiritual discipline of holding a particular door open at her school. She said that in between classes, people would go in and out of that door and it would fall back and inevitably hit the next person coming through. By holding the door, not only would it offer a ministry of hospitality but she would then pray for all those who walked through the door. She had taken on this Lenten discipline in hopes of finding deeper ways to pray for her fellow students and she did that. But something a little unexpected happened as well.
As she held that door open every day in-between classes and prayed for people she knew and didn’t know, people who were her friends, and people she didn’t like all that much, she noticed that her fellow students became friendlier. At first a few people who passed through the door would say thanks, but gradually others began to take note of her actions and say thank you as well. The thank yous soon became opportunities to check-in. As she got to know folks, she would ask them how they were doing or how a family member or friend was if they were sick. People would sometimes stop and stand with her to talk and greet others as well. She said by the end of the forty days, it had become “a thing” to put it in her words. And where she had originally thought people were changing in the way they treated her, she realized she was the one who had changed.
She had grown more empathetic and less judgmental of her fellow students. She noticed the people who had to rush through the door to get to class on time were the same people who had knocked into her as she lingered at her locker with barely a mumbled apology. There were those who walked through always alone, looking down at the ground, and never making eye contact. There were the popular kids who passed through surrounded by a big group of friends chattering incessantly. There was the girl who always had her nose in a book and the kid who always offered her a piece of gum. And though she began to know some of the kids who came through, she knew she would never know all the things they struggled with—making friends, wanting to be popular, bad home situations, alcoholic parents, siblings who suffered from disease, having to put down their pet, going hungry, parents getting divorced, death and life and fear and anxiety. The biggest thing she noticed was the amount of pain so many of her peers were struggling with and she began to see them in a new light. She wouldn’t have noticed that all in one day or even in a week. But intentionally engaging in her spiritual practice over the forty days had helped her to grow in her life with Christ and notice others.
Though she continued to hold the door most days after Lent, she was not as intentional as she had been. But that experience had helped her to grow in relationship with God and her fellow students. She wasn’t doing it to be noticed by others and didn’t tell anyone why she was doing it. She simply held a door and prayed—not to be seen or heard by others but that she might see and hear others. Her heart was created anew.
That is what the season of Lent is all about. We talk about our need to claim our identity as penitent sinners, and we do need to do just that. But Lent is also a time for renewal as we clear out all the distractions and things that keep us from keeping God at the center of our being. It probably takes about forty days to do that—not because it is some magic number but because it is just long enough for us to stick to it and not despair that Lent will never end. Amen.
Ash Wednesday: Joel 2:1-2, 12-17; Psalm 103:8-14; 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6;10; Matthew 6;1-6, 16-21
Church of the Ascension, Montgomery, AL
Wednesday, February 26, 2020
The Rev. Candice B. Frazer