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Blurb: The Forty Days

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This is a blurb for the pseudo-quarterly newsletter of my parish, Grace, Mt. Washington:

The forty days of Lent

While many of us know that Lent is a period of forty days leading up to Easter -- we sing hymns on the theme (#142 and #143, for instance) -- but why forty days for the season?

As far back as the great saint Irenaeus (approx. 140-200 A.D.), the Church observed fasting before Easter, as a preparation of the spirit to celebrate the Feast of the Resurrection. New Christians were baptized on Easter Sunday in the early church, as well, and so as part of their preparation and catechism, they fasted in preparation for baptism. We know that by the fourth century, the forty days before Easter are a common season throughout the church, observed by all believers. This season has always been a time of preparation and vigil, and a time for serious prayer.

The number of days, though, is a Biblically important number. Forty is a number which most students of the Bible see as a number symbolic of completion, and of a critical time (days or years) when God is working. The rains of the Flood last forty days and nights; Moses goes up to Mount Sinai to speak with the Lord for forty days; Israel wanders in the desert for 40 years and a generation passes away before they approach the Promised Land; King David reigns for forty years; Jesus is tempted by Satan for forty days in the wilderness; after the Resurrection, Jesus taught the disciples for forty days before his Ascension. The number 40 is like a trumpet announcing something important in the Bible.

So what does 40 announce in the Lenten season? It is modeled on Jesus' Temptation: After his baptism by John, the Holy Spirit drove him into the wilderness, where he fasted for forty days and nights (Matthew 3-4; Mark 1; Luke 4). For this reason, the Church fasts and struggles against temptation in Lent, that we may become more like Jesus, and that we can "return in the power of the Spirit" (Luke 4:14). Lent is a time to be led by the Spirit, to fight the tempter, and to pray.

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