Forty Days = Your Entire Life
“Forty” is a significant number. In Scripture, it is used more than 145 different times. For example, the rain during the Great Flood lasted forty days and forty nights. Each time Moses went up Mount Sinai, he remained there for forty days and nights. The Israelites wandered in the desert for forty years. After His resurrection, Jesus appeared to His disciples for forty days before ascending into Heaven. And there are many other uses of “forty” throughout the Bible. Interestingly, forty is even significant within human nature, in that we develop within our mother’s womb for forty weeks before being born.
The “forty” that we commemorate during Lent is the forty days and forty nights that our Lord spent in the desert being tempted by the devil while He fasted and prayed. Forty is used to symbolize a time of testing, purification, trial or probation. For that reason, it should also be seen as a symbol of your entire life here on earth. In Saint Matthew’s version of Jesus’ temptation in the desert, He specifically uses the wording “forty days and forty nights.” Saint Bede, in commenting upon this, points out that this period of time not only symbolizes our entire lives, but the “days” represent the many graces and blessings we receive, while the “nights” represent the crosses we endure.
As we finish our Lenten journey, it is important to once again apply the lessons of Jesus’ time in the desert to our entire lives. Let’s consider two lessons we can take from the passage quoted above. First, we see that Jesus was “led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil.” This teaches us that Jesus not only endured temptation, He confronted it. He was not afraid of the devil and did not fear his attacks. Instead, He willingly faced those temptations, being led by the Spirit, so as to not only overcome them in His life but also to enable us to confront, in our lives, every temptation by the power and initiative of the Holy Spirit. We must never be afraid to confront temptations directly and confidently when the Holy Spirit is in the lead.
A second important lesson is that Jesus voluntarily fasted during this time in the desert. This illustrates the importance of the virtue of temperance in life. If we see this period of forty as a symbol of our whole lives, then we will understand that temperance must always be part of our lives. When we experience the joys and blessings of life (the forty days), we must certainly celebrate them. But we must always do so with a certain self-denial, in that we must never allow the passing things of this world to become the primary satisfaction we seek. Saint John of the Cross teaches that we can even become overly attached to spiritual consolations. Conversely, when we experience the crosses of life (the forty nights), we must also practice a certain self-denial, in that we must not allow the difficulties we endure to discourage us or to distract us from seeking out and fulfilling the will of God. Fasting, meaning our acquisition of the virtue of temperance, must lead us always through the ups and downs of life, helping us to keep our eyes on the truths God has revealed to us and rejecting the lies of the devil.
Reflect, today, upon the importance of embracing the virtue of temperance with courage throughout life. Throughout life’s many ups and downs, joys and sorrows, blessings and crosses, we must allow ourselves to be led by the Spirit, confronting every circumstance with courage and self-denial. Reflect upon any ways that you struggle with the crosses you endure or excessively cling to the consolations of life. Seek to embrace the road of virtue as we continue Lent in imitation of Jesus’ forty days and nights in the desert.