40 days of Spiritual Growth

Father John A. Kiley

Clearly Jesus was not the first Biblical personality to spend 40 days and 40 nights in the Judean desert. In fact, Biblical scholars cite at least 24 times when the number 40 can be cited in the Jewish Scriptures, the Christian Scriptures and in the Church’s sacramental life. The profound significance of these numerous 40-day episodes is succinctly proposed by St. Mark in this coming Sunday’s Gospel passage for the First Sunday of Lent.
St. Mark records, “The Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert, and he remained in the desert for forty days, tempted by Satan. He was among wild beasts, and the angels ministered to him. After John had been arrested, Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the gospel of God: ‘This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.’”
Jesus’ sojourn in the desert for 40 days was clearly in accord with the plan of God. St. Mark insists, “The Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert.” Many great events of Jewish history were marked by 40 days of inner and social confrontation under God’s Divine direction. Noah endured a 40-day flood and a 40-day wait for the waters to recede. Moses sojourned with God atop Mt. Sinai for 40 days and waited patiently for 40 years to arrive at the Promised Land. Elijah fled the hapless Ahab and the wicked Jezebel and her false prophets and then took forty days to regain his strength to return to depose the dreadful royal couple. Goliath gave the Israelites 40 days to resolve how to deal with his overwhelming strength when finally David would surprisingly settle the issue. Jonah was accorded 40 days to convert the wicked Ninevites but then pouted when they repented after only three days. So now Jesus, amid shifting sands and towering rocks for 40 days would indicate the beginning of another momentous step in salvation history.
Noah and Moses and Elijah and David and Jonah experienced great spiritual turmoil during their 40-day happenings. Now, Jesus would face the struggle between good and evil during his time in the wasteland. Jesus would indeed be “tempted by Satan,” and he would be made even more uneasy by the occurrence of “wild beasts.” Still he would also be consoled by the presence and assurance of angels who “ministered to him,” just as they had ministered to Israel fleeing Egypt and to Elijah fleeing Jezebel. And now, just as happened with Jesus’ Old Testament predecessors, the Savior’s struggle with diabolical forces for 40 days would lead to a resounding spiritual renewal: “Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the gospel of God: ‘This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.’” Christ’s sustained obedience in the wilderness spawned the new Israel of God there in the same Judean desert where the old Israel’s continued rebellions had brought forth only alienation and infidelity.
St. Mark’s account of Jesus’ 40-day experience in the desert with its emphasis on prayer and fasting, on spiritual renewal and self-denial, is certainly an appropriate start for Lent. Yet believers may briefly skip ahead to the Easter season where the Risen Christ, victorious over Satan on Calvary, would remain for forty days encouraging and strengthening his apostles and disciples until he would finally return to the Father on Ascension Day. Once again, 40 days signaled spiritual renewal, this time on a world-wide scale.
Scripture commentators often point out that the Bible’s forty day episodes, whether they involve Noah or Moses or Jonah or Christ, always highlight human reliance on God’s sustaining power while facing a challenging situation. God mysteriously allows select believers to endure these lengthy ordeals in order to seal their relationship with him by relying more on God’s help in perplexing circumstances rather than their own resources. These double score periods in the Bible show that even puzzling times allow humans to grow spiritually just as long as we rely on God’s grace during such trying intervals. The forty day’s endurance will often accompany some important moral or social purpose, such as renewing society, confronting public evil or strengthening a community’ faith.
It is often also noted that these 40 day periods especially highlight God’s patience with us. God takes his time, one author noted, even with sinners. By often using 40-day episodes to symbolize periods of spiritual growth in the Bible, God is sending a message that growing spiritually is always a process, always a sojourn that takes time to complete. God is ever at work in our lives, but the Bible’s 40-day episodes symbolize those special times when God offers an opportunity to focus less on our own resources and more intensely on his strength. The Church’s season of Lent continues this opportunity.