Lent and the Number 40
On the early days the church celebrated only Easter, and the whole liturgical year was time to celebrate the resurrection of the Lord. As the time passed the church felt the urge to have a special time to celebrate this happening that changed the course of history. It was on the council of Nicaea (325) that the Catholic church established a date for Easter. And it wasn’t a fix date. As the Jewish calender was lunar and the resurrection of the Lord happened on a passover, we should celebrate it on a similar basis. It is now that Lent appears for two main reasons on pratical as the date moves, it was a way to prepare the faithful to the Holy celebrations, but this wasn’t the main reason. The Church saw it as a great opportunity to prepare the newly converted to baptism, and a very good way to start anew, renewing the promises of the Baptism. So this time of 40 days begun to be lived on the very beginning of the history of the Catholic faith as a mirror of the 40 days that the lord spent in the desert.
Saint Thomas Aquinas says about the temptations of the Lord:
“Christ wished to be tempted; first that He might strengthen us against temptations. Hence Gregory says in a homily (xvi in Evang.): “It was not unworthy of our Redeemer to wish to be tempted, who came also to be slain; in order that by His temptations He might conquer our temptations, just as by His death He overcame our death.”
Secondly, that we might be warned, so that none, however holy, may think himself safe or free from temptation. Wherefore also He wished to be tempted after His baptism, because, as Hilary says (Super Matth., cap. iii.): “The temptations of the devil assail those principally who are sanctified, for he desires, above all, to overcome the holy. Hence also it is written (Ecclus. 2): Son, when thou comest to the service of God, stand in justice and in fear, and prepare thy soul for temptation.”
Thirdly, in order to give us an example: to teach us, to wit, how to overcome the temptations of the devil. Hence Augustine says (De Trin. iv) that Christ “allowed Himself to be tempted” by the devil, “that He might be our Mediator in overcoming temptations, not only by helping us, but also by giving us an example.”
Fourthly, in order to fill us with confidence in His mercy. Hence it is written (Heb. 4:15): “We have not a high-priest, who cannot have compassion on our infirmities, but one tempted in all things like as we are, without sin.” (Ia IIIae Q41 a1)
Now lest get to the number fourty. After the text you can see a list of references to the number and I don’t want to meditate about every one of them here. But it is good to notice tha it is romaly related to penitence, to a path of becoming a better follower of God. The main reason is the time that the Lord spent in the desert. But this is also the number of years that the people of God was in the desert before entering the promised Land. And the days of penance annouced by the prophet Jonah. Periods of purification, times to review the way the people were living and change the direction back to God. I cherish the story of the prophet Elijah, he had had a great victory aganist the false prophets just before, now he is in the desert wishing death… after forty days fed by heavenly food (impossible not to think about Eucharisty) he goes up to the mountain of God to discover that God hides in the tiny wispering sound… I invite you to read the chapters 18 and 19 from the first book of Kings and meditate about what is realy success and what is failure in a Faithful’s life.
40 days – Jesus as on the desert to be tempted.
40 years – The people of God in the desert
40 days – Deluge
40 days to the destruction of Nineveh
40 days the spies were in the promised land (Nb 13:24)
40 days Moses was in the mount and received the law of God, (Ex 24:18)
40 days Moses was in the mount after the sin of the Golden Calf, (Dt 9:18,25)
40 days of Elijah in Horeb, (1Kings 19:8)
40 Days Jesus was seen before ascension