A 40-day journey to recommit to Christ

By | February 25, 2009

A few days ago we were marked with ashes and told to “Repent and believe in the Gospel.” We hear those words again on the First Sunday of Lent. Mark tells us that the Spirit “drove” Jesus out into the desert where he remained for 40 days “tempted by Satan.” He spent 40 days in a wind-swept, barren desert, inhabited by wild beasts, with no human contact. Jesus came forth from those 40 days ready to begin his public ministry.

In the four sentences of the Gospel we encounter much of what we do during Lent. First there is the number 40, the number of days in Lent. It rained 4o days in the Great Flood which destroyed all living things except Noah, his family and the animals carried in the ark. For 40 days, Moses was on Mount Horeb where God gave him the Ten Commandments. The Israelites wandered in the desert for 40 years on their way to the Promised Land — the length of a lifetime. Elijah fasted for 40 days on his journey to Mt. Horab. Jonah lived 40 days in the belly of the whale on the way to Ninevah. All these were times of testing and trial. All occurred during a journey or as a preparation for a journey.

Lent lasts for 40 days in imitation of Jesus’ 40 days in the desert and is a period of preparation for Christ’s resurrection. This preparation started as a two-day fast, more of a sorrowful response to the recalling of Jesus’ passion and death on Good Friday. Later it was lengthened to a week, which commenced with the reading of the Passion. It gradually lengthened until it became the 40 days. Lent begins on Ash Wednesday and ends on the evening of Holy Thursday with the Mass of the Lord’s Supper. But wait, that’s 46 days. However, if you leave out the 6 Sundays of Lent you get 40. (Because each Sunday is a “little Easter,” — not a time for fasting.)

If 40 days indicates a journey, then where are we going and what “drives” us into this desert of Lent? The Catechumens, those who are preparing for initiation into the church, journey toward the waters of baptism, in which they will died to their old lives and be born into a new life “hidden in Christ.”

As we accompany them we recognize and acknowledge that we have wandered from the life we had received in our baptisms. So, like Christ, we fast during these 40 days. We do so in support of the Catechumens and in a reawakened desire to become better followers of Christ. Our fasting is like going into a desert, where non-essentials are stripped away. We fast from whatever keeps us from being good disciples and feast on the things which help us turn towards God, like prayer, scripture and works of charity.

When we arrive at Easter we remember the resurrection that followed Christ’s death. We reaffirm our own baptisms and recommit ourselves to our Christian lives, the journey in which we follow in the footsteps of Jesus Christ.


Johnston, director of worship at St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Manitowoc, teaches a class on liturgy and prayer for the diocesan Commissioned Ministry Program.

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