Lent is a season of preparation marked by prayer, fasting and other acts of self-denial, spiritual discipline and a focus on spiritual house-cleaning by individual Christians. The season of Lent lasts for 40 days and officially begins on Ash Wednesday and ends on Holy Saturday. The word comes from the "lengthening" of daylight hours as we progress from the darkness of winter to the new light of spring.|
Most of us associate the season with doing penance for forty days because Jesus fasted forty days in the wilderness. But did you ever wonder why he was out there for forty days rather than seven or ten or fifty? Think back to the Old Testament. Noah and company were in the Ark for 40 days. Moses was up on Sinai receiving the 10 commandments for 40 days. The Israelites wandered around the desert for 40 years. So why all these forties? Some suggest a connection to the forty weeks that a woman carries her developing baby in the womb before a new birth can take place. All these "forties" are a necessary and not-so-comfortable prelude for something new. In Noah's case, it's the rebirth of a sinful world that had been cleansed by raging flood waters. In Moses' case, it was the birth of the people of the covenant. In the case of the nomadic Israelites, it was the start of a new, settled existence in the Promised Land.
So what about Jesus? What did his forty days mean? The birth of a new Israel liberated from sin, reconciled to God, and governed by the law of the Spirit rather than a law chiseled in stone. Looking back to the story of Moses and the Israelites, there was someone who did not want them to go out into the desert to offer sacrifice to their God. Pharaoh did not take the loss of his cheap labor lying down. When Jesus begins his mission of liberation, there is another slave-master who is no more willing than Pharaoh to let his minions go without a fight. That is Satan.
Since the sixties, it has been fashionable in some quarters to dismiss the devil as a relic of ancient mythology or an invention of medieval fantasy. Such a view is clearly at odds with Scripture and tradition.
Our battle is not against flesh and blood, says St. Paul. We must be aware that if we do not know our enemy and his tactics, we are bound to lose.
The temptation of Jesus in the desert shows us the tactics of the Devil. Bread which is a symbol for all that sustains our physical life, is a great blessing. But Satan tries to make material things the ultimate, distracting us from a deeper hunger and a more satisfying food. Political power and all leadership is intended by God for the sake of serving the common good; Satan twists things to make leaders self-seeking, oppressive tyrants like himself. The lust for power and fame ironically leads not to dominion but to slavery to the Devil. Then there is religious temptation, the trickiest of them all-manipulating God for our own glory, using his gifts to make people look at us rather than at Him.
Jesus triumphs in this first wrestling match. He shows us how to keep from being pinned. Fasting breaks undue attachments to material blessings and stimulates our spiritual appetite. Humble service, breaks the stranglehold of pride. The reverent worship of authentic faith breaks the hold of superstition, magic, and all arrogant religion. And the word of God is shown as the sword of the Spirit, the secret weapon that slashes through the lies of the enemy.
So what about our forty days? It is a time to use the tactics modeled by Jesus and break the strongholds. Prayer, fasting, humble service fueled by regular worship and receiving the sacrament of Holy Communion and Scripture. If we make use of them diligently during this Lenten season, pregnant with possibilities, we can enter into greater freedom. Darkness can give way to increasing light. Something new and wonderful can be born in us.
Rev'd. Fr. Colin Humes