Have you ever thought about how special the number 40 is?
We have a 40-hour work week; a refreshing nap takes only 40 winks, “life begins at 40,” Ali Baba (actually his future daughter-in-law) got the better of 40 thieves and the back 40 (acres) was a good start on a farmstead.
We’re pointed to encounter another important 40: a 40-day journey. Ash Wednesday begins Lent’s 40 days, a time once known as the Quadragesima (the forty days). The 40 days are the number of days of fasting between Ash Wednesday and Holy Saturday. These are how Catholics commemorate Jesus’ 40 days in the desert after his baptism and before he began his public ministry. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church notes: “By the solemn 40 days of Lent the church unites herself each year to the mystery of Jesus in the desert” (n. 540).
While a Lent of 40 days is ancient tradition, a set pattern of 40 days of preparation did not develop immediately among the early Christians. In fact, it seems that the length of preparation time for Easter did not settle into a Lenten 40 days for about three centuries. “The Catholic Encyclopedia” notes that, “we find, in the early years of the fourth century, the first mention of the term tessarakoste.” (Tessarakoste is a Greek word for “40th” and was sometimes used to refer to Lent.)
Once the pattern settled into 40 days, the number made perfect sense — for a lot more reasons besides the basic one that Jesus spent 40 days in the desert.
For example, our notion of “life begins at 40” seems to have ancient ties. “The Jewish Encyclopedia” notes that ancient “Jews … shared with other peoples, especially the Greeks, the notion that the 40th year was the height or acme of man’s life; and from this fact 40 years came to represent a generation.” In Jewish teaching, found in the Talmud, a person moves into another stage of life — noted for wisdom or reason — at the age of 40.
In the Bible, Moses was 40 when he fled from Egypt and twice 40 — or age 80 — when he led God’s people out of Egypt (Acts 7:23 and 30). Isaac was 40 when he married Rebekah (Gn 25:20). Interestingly, the prophet Mohammed was also 40 when he reported his first vision of the angel Gabriel.
Looking through the Bible, the number 40 is attached to many significant events. The most familiar to us are:
- In Noah’s time, it rained 40 days and 40 nights;
- In Moses’ day, the Hebrew people wandered in the desert for 40 years;
- Moses spent 40 days on Mount Sinai with God after receiving the Law (Ex 24:18).
A few less familiar biblical 40s include:
- Goliath taunting the Hebrews twice a day for 40 days before David slew him (1Sm 17:16);
- Israel’s first three kings: Saul, David and Solomon each ruling for 40 years;
- The prophet Elijah traveling into the desert for 40 days, sustained by food given him by an angel, until he reached the “mountain of God,” Horeb (1Kgs 19:8);
- Moses sending Abner and a group of spies into Canaan for 40 days, to investigate the Promised Land (Nm 13:25);
- Deborah, the only female judge of the people of Israel, ruled for 40 years after she successfully led the people against the Canaanite army.
The number 40 is clearly important in biblical history. In fact, it appears more than 140 times in the Bible, usually to alert us to a time of challenge, change or testing. As “The Jewish Encyclopedia” notes, “In the Bible, next to the number seven, the number 40 occurs most frequently. In Talmudical literature it is often … used as a round number or as a concrete and definite expression in place of the abstract and indefinite ‘many’ or ‘some,’ and hence becoming a symbolical number.”
Fr. Ron Rolheiser, a columnist for The Compass, has written that, “The number 40 … speaks of the length of time required before something can come to proper fruition.”
For Christians, of course, the number 40 first reminds us of Jesus. Not only were there his 40 days in the desert, but he was presented at the Temple on his 40th day of life — an event we celebrate on Feb. 2 with the solemnity of the Presentation. Then there were 40 hours in the tomb before his resurrection and, after the resurrection, there were 40 days before his Ascension. From those 40 days after Easter, we now have the time when our newly baptized, in the RCIA process, experience the mystagogia, a time to live in the fullness of the church, just as the disciples lived in the fullness of the risen Lord.
From Jesus’ 40 hours in the tomb, later Catholics developed the tradition of the 40 Hours Devotion. (It is based on the tradition that Jesus was buried at 3 p.m. on Friday and rose again at 6 a.m. on Sunday.) The 40 Hours, time spent in continuous prayer before the Blessed Sacrament, honors Jesus’ time in the tomb and the hours that the disciples spent in sorrow and prayer and, yes, in the darkness of confusion and fear. Our 40 Hours prayers, of course, profess our belief in the promise of resurrection.
Each of these many 40s should be on our minds as we approach Ash Wednesday. Lent isn’t about work (40 hours) or sleep (40 winks) or even trying to be “39 again.” Forty reminds us of a time for growth, a time for change, a time to grow a little more in our faith. It’s definitely about preparation, which is what Lent is all about.
Sources: “The Catholic Encyclopedia”; “The Jewish Encyclopedia”; “The Catholic Update”; about.judaism.com; Catechism of the Catholic Church; biblestudy.org; Joe Paprocki’s catechistsjourney.loyolapress.com; vatican.va and catholicvoice.org.
Kasten is the author of “Linking Your Beads, The Rosary’s History, Mysteries and Prayers,” and “Making Sense of Saints,” both published by Our Sunday Visitor Press.