A period of forty days is significant in scripture, and is repeated over and over:
We heard in the Penitential Rite on Ash Wednesday that the forty days of Lent are the Church’s preparation for the great feast at Easter, and that that preparation takes the form of “self-examination and repentance, prayer, fasting and self-denial, and reading and meditation on God’s holy Word” (BCP pp. 611-612).
- Genesis 7 – in the great flood, rain fell on the earth forty days and forty nights.
- Exodus 24 – Moses was on the mountain with God forty days and forty nights.
- Numbers 13 – the Hebrew spies were in in the land of Canaan forty days.
- 1 Samuel 17 – the giant Goliath tormented the Israelite army for forty days before David killed him.
- 1 Kings 19 – when Elijah was on the run from Jezebel, an angel fed him a meal of bread and water, and on the strength of it he walked forty days from Beer-Sheba to Mount Horeb.
- Jonah 3 – Jonah’s prophecy to Nineveh was that they had forty days to repent.
And Mark tells us in his Gospel that after Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordan River, he went into the wilderness for forty days and was tempted by Satan.
Songwriter Richard Colligan explores this theme in his Lenten song “Forty Days.” You can find it on YouTube here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AX2GnR7Wvd8. It’s a lovely song, and I commend it to you. “Forty days of hoping, waiting, trusting, ‘til the season ripens true.” But that hoping, waiting and trusting is not passive on our parts. We have work to do in Lent. “Self-examination and repentance, prayer, fasting and self-denial, reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.” For this reason in Lent we offer small groups you can join. This year Henry is leading a Bible Study on the Letter to the Hebrews. I am leading a study looking at depictions of baptism in art and literature, because baptism is the sign of our belonging in the Kingdom of God Jesus proclaimed. Claude is leading a “Benedicite” walking group. The Benedicite is a canticle the BCP commends to us for use in Morning Prayer during Lent. You can find the full text on pp. 26-28 of your Prayer Books. By walking we connect with our own bodies, one another, the space and time we currently occupy, and with those who have walked this earth before us. “O all ye works of the Lord, bless ye the Lord: praise him and magnify him forever!” Connection with the world, the community, and our own bodies is also the theme of the “Fasting for Feeding Community Kitchen” group, in which we will make food to nourish our own bodies and to share for the nourishment of our neighbours.
These groups help us do the work of Lent, which prepares us for Easter. Our Sunday morning lections are also all oriented toward preparing the ground of our hearts to receive the Good News of Easter. There is a LOT going on in our readings this morning! In Genesis we read about the covenant God made with Noah, his family, and all living things on earth, that he would never again destroy the earth with a flood. Rainbows are the sign of this covenant between God and us. St. Peter brings up Noah again in his letter to the Christians in Asia Minor. Peter says that the flood of Noah’s day was a symbol of baptism – Noah and his family, eight people in all, were “saved through water.” Now the waters of baptism are the symbol of our salvation by the death and resurrection of Jesus.
In our Gospel lesson from Mark chapter 1, we also heard again of the baptism – that of Jesus by John in the Jordan River. I say again, because we had almost this exact same reading six weeks ago on January 10th – the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord. On that day, we began a little earlier in Mark chapter 1 with John the Baptist’s ministry, and ended with the descent of the Holy Spirit on Jesus and the voice from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” Now today, six weeks later, we begin with John and Jesus in the river and carry on to what happened next: the Spirit, which had just descended on Jesus, which Mark intends us to read as God anointing Jesus as King, that same Spirit sent Jesus out into the desert, where he remained for forty days, being attended by wild animals and angels, and being tempted by Satan. At the end of that period, Jesus returned to Galilee and preached his first sermon: “The time has come. The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!”
Our Lenten journey each year parallels this story of Jesus in Mark chapter 1. For forty days we pay special attention to the wilderness in our lives – to our loneliness, and to the areas in which we face temptation to sin. Loneliness and temptation are universal human experiences. No one escapes them. But they are also experiences that each person must face on their own. There’s an African-American spiritual I absolutely love, performed by the Fairfield Four. You need to listen to this. It gives me chills every time. Here’s the link on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IAs4L9AKUKk. This is what they sing: “You got to go to the lonesome valley. You got to go there by yourself. Nobody else can go for you. You got to go there by yourself. Oh, you got to ask the Lord’s forgiveness. Nobody else can ask him for you. You got to go to the lonesome valley. You got to go there by yourself. Nobody else, nobody else can go for you. You got to go there by yourself.”
Forty days is a highly symbolic period of time in scripture, as I’ve already pointed out. But it’s also a meaningful period of time when we think about the work of Lent – of self-examination, repentance, prayer, fasting, self-denial, reading and meditating on God’s Word. Forty days is a long time in our high-paced world. We have tuned our bodies in to rhythms of much shorter duration. The 140-character tweet, the half-hour sitcom, the 8-hour workday, the seven-day week. One of the reasons this pandemic has thrown us for such a loop is the way in which lockdowns and stay-at-home orders have both compressed and stretched time out of all its usual patterns. Sustaining attention for forty days is hard work for us. Forty days reminds us what endurance feels like. Jesus endured his forty days of temptation by Satan in the desert, and he endured his suffering and execution on the cross. He endured three days in the grave, during which time, Peter tells us, “he went and preached to the spirits in prison who disobeyed long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built.” The major theme of this letter of Peter’s is Christians enduring persecution. The forty days of Lent are intended to jar us out of our habits and complacency. The increased effort and attention we are called to remind us that the life of a Christian will not be pain-free. When we follow Jesus, we push against the world we live in. We don’t go with the flow. And that creates tension, which causes us discomfort at best, and pain at worst. Everything in creation is born to die, is literally decaying, because of sin. Jesus came to announce the advent of God’s Kingdom, where death is defeated. Right now, we Christians have one foot in each camp. And that’s an uncomfortable position to be in. Lent reminds us to sit with that discomfort, to pay attention to it.
Deserts or wildernesses, both physical ones and metaphorical ones, are places where humans are tested and transformed. The monastic traditions of the Church we know today come out of early Christian monks and nuns who were drawn to live ascetic lives in the deserts of Egypt and Palestine. These Desert Fathers and Mothers had a huge influence on Christianity. They spent their lives doing the work of Lent, relying on the Holy Spirit to help them resist the temptation to sin, just as Jesus did. Living on the prairies is not entirely unlike the desert or wilderness. We know what wide-open spaces feel like. We wouldn’t have to travel far from Regina to find a spot where it’s just ourselves and the wild creatures. When we go out onto the prairies, it’s easy to lean in to the feeling of our own smallness and God’s greatness. Lent invites us to lean in to that same sense in our spiritual lives, by doing the work of self-examination and repentance, prayer, fasting and self-denial, and reading and meditation on God’s holy Word. In other words, we discipline our minds and bodies in order to enter fully into the experience of freedom that comes through participation in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The journey of Lent leads to Easter.
I invite you, therefore, to lean in to the experience of Lent for the next 40 days. Well, 36. We started last Wednesday. Be intentional in doing the work of Lent. Join a small group, so that we can help one another. But remember that, ultimately, “Nobody else can go for you. You got to go there by yourself.” Amen.