The Number 40

Homily for February 18, 2018 (1st Sunday of Lent)
Genesis 9:8-15; Psalm 25; 1 Peter 3:18-20; Mark 1:12-15

What’s the big deal about the number 40?  The writers of the synoptic gospels (Mark, Matthew and Luke) all note that Jesus spent 40 days in the desert following his baptism by John in the Jordan and in preparation for his public ministry.  Why not 20, 30 or 50 days?

The writers of these gospels, like the authors of other books of the Bible, chose 40 because of its symbolic importance.  Consider these examples:

In our first reading, God used a rainbow as a sign of his covenant with Noah and his descendants. Never again would God destroy the creatures of the earth with a flood.  After commanding the rains to fall for 40 days and nights, God wanted to start over again.  He gave us another chance.

In the story of the Exodus, the people of Israel wandered for 40 years in the desert before reaching their Promised Land.

  • King David, a great ruler and sinner, reigned over Israel for 40 years.
  • The prophet Elijah made a 40-day journey into the desert to escape the murderous persecution of Ahab and Jezebel.  He was fed, strengthened, tested and ultimately encountered God at Mt. Horeb.
  • Jonah walked through Nineveh proclaiming that God would destroy the city in 40 days.  The people repented, and God had mercy on them.
  • Jesus spent 40 days in the desert, where he fasted, prayed and was tempted by Satan.

The number 40, then, symbolizes a time of testing or trial, of transition and transformation.  It is not surprising, then, that the Church has described Lent as a liturgical season of 40 days (even though it’s really a little longer).  Through the traditional disciplines of prayer, fasting and almsgiving or works of mercy, we are asked to go out into the desert and come to terms with our own temptations.  Like Jesus, we push or stretch ourselves spiritually and to rely on the grace of God to sustain us along the way.

Today we again hear the timeless call of Jesus as he began his public ministry: “The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.”  The kingdom of God isn’t worldly, but it’s not an abstraction, either.  Living in God’s kingdom means listening to God’s voice, accepting God’s word, and living as God wills.  Living in this kingdom demands that we change the way we look at the world, how we live, and how we treat others.

Growing as a disciple of Jesus isn’t a matter of 40 days or 40 years.  It’s the work of a lifetime.  In faith and with a sense of purpose, we take another step.+