What is it about 40 days that so enamors the writers of Scripture? Jesus spends 40 days in the wilderness. In the days of the Flood, Noah and his family were spared because they obeyed God and took refuge in the ark for 40 days. Moses went to the mountain of the Lord at Sinai and stayed there in prayer and fasting for 40 days. After the prophet Elijah had confronted idolatry in the land of Israel and destroyed the 400 priests of Baal, he fled into the wilderness and journeyed for 40 days to the mountain of God at Sinai. The people of Nineveh fasted for 40 days after Jonah finished preaching. Ezekiel had to lie on his right side for 40 days as a figure of the siege that would result in the destruction of Jerusalem.
It continues: Goliath strutted in front of the Israelite army for 40 days before David killed him with his slingshot. It took 40 days for the Israelite spies to search out the Promised Land and bring back the fruit of the land. There were 40 days between Jesus’ resurrection and his ascension. Ancient astronomers divided the year into nine segments of 40 days each. Even in modern days, we have an Ignatian 30-day retreat, and those who wish to learn how to give that retreat spend an additional ten days in instruction and reflection. And to expand it a little, it is around 40 weeks that a woman carries a child in her womb before the baby is born.
I don’t know what’s so special about 40 days. Maybe God is the only one who knows for sure. But what I do know is that in every example used above, the 40 day period is followed by major changes in the life of the person or the community. It happens every time! More to the point, the change is orchestrated by the Spirit of God … it is God who brings about the changes.
Lent used to be a time of severe penance as a way of purifying ourselves from our sinful habits and being ready to celebrate Easter. The whole focus was on me – what must I do to be worthy of God? Even though we are no longer asked by the Church to observe the severe penances of former times, it is surely fitting that we make some of form of preparation. And I would like to suggest is that you keep the focus on what God is doing for you! Each day you receive blessings upon blessing from God … look for those! Fast from an obsession with self and feast on God’s blessings. In that way, you can …
Be God’s smile for someone!
Fr. Herb, C.S.C.