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Ever notice how many stories in the Bible contain a great deal of symbolism? Symbols represent a deeper meaning than the real thing. Like the number 7 in the Genesis story of creation, that also corresponds to the number of days it takes for the Moon to transition between each of its quarters: from full, to waning half, new, and waxing half. Humans began to mark time according to the moon thousands of years ago, and around 500 BC when Genesis was written “7 days” represented the time and process of Creation itself. The Moon was born, lived, and died, and was reborn according to the number 7.
The number 40 is another number we often hear in Bible stories. The great flood of Genesis lasts 40 days and nights. Moses fasts 40 days before going up to receive the Law, and then is on Mount Sinai 40 days, receiving the Law. The Israelites wander 40 years in the desert after fleeing the Egyptians. Goliath challenges all comers for 40 days, before meeting young David. Jesus fasts 40 days in the wilderness to prepare for his ministry. He ascends into heaven 40 days after the resurrection. So the number 40 is a symbol, like the number 7 in Genesis: it represents something other than the actual number. It’s not to be taken literally. We wouldn’t ask a bald eagle to say the pledge of allegiance! But the bird symbolizes something deeper in the American psyche. The same holds true for much of the Bible, that’s rich with symbolism.
The Lenten season lasts 40 days, simply because of the number of days Jesus spends in the wilderness preparing for his ministry. Lenten is a Middle English word that means “springtime.” We begin to notice that the days are “lengthening.” So the number 40 represents at least two things. It’s a way of saying “a really really long time of hardship or trial” and it signifies new life, new growth, and transformation; a change from one great task to another great task.
So these 40 days in the church year, are the time of preparation for Easter. Lent officially begins on Ash Wednesday, and ends with the Lord’s Supper on Maundy Thursday of Holy Week. (The Sundays of Lent aren’t counted in the 40 days.)
What’s interesting to me is that the beginning of Lent often corresponds with the Lunar New Year that floats on the calendar between late January and mid-February. Ash Wednesday floats as well. We count back 40 days from the first Sunday after the first full moon of Spring, which fluctuates year to year. And both Ash Wednesday and the Lunar New Year symbolize a time of renewal. Renewal is a time of adaptation. As we age, we constantly find opportunities to adapt ourselves to “the times”, as Dylan sang, that are always changing: Facebook church; your new smartphone; extreme drought; all require us to adapt. Even the ways to keep ourselves and others safe in the pandemic. Remember almost a year ago, when people sanitized their groceries, doorknobs and cell phones with ritual intensity? It turns out transmission from surfaces is extremely low. Hand washing, social distance, and masking remain paramount. Rites old and new sustain us, as times continue to change.
Our tradition gives us three practices for this season of renewal: fasting, prayer, and giving to the poor. I think one reason for these three, is that they help us walk in another person’s shoes. They grow us in compassion. Prayer engages our heart with those who suffer. Fasting engages our bodies with those who hunger. And alms engage us with those who live hand-to-mouth. They help us check-in with ourselves and ask the question Jesus raises when he says, “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” I think Lent asks us, “where is your heart today.” Is it with those who suffer? Is it with the hungry? Is it with those living hand-to-mouth? Or is it elsewhere? And if so, why?
We need do nothing to earn God’s lovingkindness. God gives us that free gift in our baptism, and confirms it constantly in this holy meal we share. But in this season of renewal and adapting to changing times, maybe it’s time to check-in with our hearts to find out where they are as we begin the journey to the cross and empty tomb.
Buddhists teach us that our ego, our desire for control, can be one of the greatest obstacles to our serenity. I think the disciplines of Lent challenge us to let go of the ego: to let go of our urge to satisfy every craving; to let go of our fear of not having enough to share; to let go of our impulse to insulate ourselves from others’ suffering.
Prayer, fasting, and alms-giving require us “to let go and let God.” May God’s love strengthen that resolve.
– Pr. David