Forty Days

Musical accompaniment: Handel's Messiah, Christ's Passion

Graphic accompaniment: da Vinci's Last Supper

Spirituous accompaniment: O'Sioda's Cream Stout


Lent is forty days long. It begins on Ash Wednesday and concludes on Holy Saturday. Between those two religious bookends are forty days of fasting and piety (excluding Sundays, which, though holy days, exist somewhat outside the established Lenten season). Forty days ... why forty?

A lot can happen in forty days. Empires can crumble. Worlds can be reduced to rubble. The best-laid plans of mice and men can become forever dashed.  For instance, during March 1912, while at Belfast prior to her sea trials (and her maiden voyage), Titanic was still in the process of being outfitted toward eventually making her the largest, grandest, and most elegant ship of that age. Within forty days, upon the early morning hours of April 15, she lie in pieces upon the floor of the Atlantic Ocean.

Similarly, the Lenten season is a gradual descent toward an unavoidable resolution lurking at its terminal end, resulting in a "giving up the ghost" (John 19:30), one might say. Of course, embedded within it lies the hope of rebirth, rejuvenation, and resurrection. Yet magic and miracles typically only happen in fairy tales and in the Gospels, respectively, and only sparingly in real life.

But whether you believe in death or rebirth, finality or resurrection, we are still left with the same Lenten question:

Why forty days?

A quick look at the Bible may help provide the answer.


The period of forty days pops up from time to time, in both the Old and New Testaments, beginning with Genesis and the Great Flood: "And the Lord said unto Noah ... I will cause it to rain upon the earth forty days and forty nights; and every living substance that I have made will I destroy from off the face of the earth." (Genesis 7:1-4) God had a bit of a flair for the dramatic in the old days. Nowadays, He's somewhat less cataclysmic in His dabbling with the plight of humanity, perhaps just tinkering here and there with the stock market or puttering around with inflation and interest rates.

Exodus has a couple of references to forty days concerning Moses and the flight from Egypt. For instance: "And the glory of the Lord abode upon mount Sinai ... And the sight of the glory of the Lord was like devouring fire on the top of the mount in the eyes of the children of Israel. And Moses went into the midst of the cloud, and gat him up into the mount: and Moses was in the mount forty days and forty nights." (Exodus 24:16-18) At least, that's the story Moses told his wife of where he had been.

But there's more evidence in Moses' favor: "And he was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights; he did neither eat bread nor drink water {although it says nothing about nachos and beer}. And he wrote upon the tables the words of the covenant, the ten commandments." (Exodus 34:28) Come on, forty days and forty nights to transcribe ten commandments?! Kind of a weak excuse if you ask me.

By the Book of Numbers, the fourth book of Moses, "in the wilderness of Sinai" Moses was having some troubles with his congregation who were rebelling against the Lord because the land did not "floweth with milk and honey" as they all had hoped it would. And so, "the children of Israel murmured against Moses and against Aaron: and the whole congregation said unto them, Would God that we had died in the land of Egypt! or would God we had died in this wilderness!" (Numbers 14:2) Released from bondage at the hands of the Egyptians, even dividing the Red Sea in the process - I swear, sometimes there's just no pleasing some folks!

"And the Lord spake unto Moses and unto Aaron, saying ... After the number of the days in which ye searched the land, even forty days, each day for a year, shall ye bear your iniquities...I will surely do it unto this evil congregation, that are gathered together against me: in this wilderness they shall be consumed, and there they shall die" (Numbers 14:28-34) And the moral to this story is: Thou shalt not pisseth off the Lord thy God.

In the fifth book of Moses, Deuteronomy, there are numerous mentions of the period of forty days:

     "And it came to pass at the end of forty days and forty nights, that the Lord gave me the two tables of stone, even the tables of the covenant." (Deuteronomy 9:11)

     "And I fell down before the Lord, as at the first, forty days and forty nights: I did neither eat bread, nor drink water, because of all your sins which ye sinned..." (Deuteronomy 9:18)

     "Thus I fell down before the Lord forty days and forty nights, and I fell down at the first, because the Lord has said he would destroy you." (Deuteronomy 9:25)

     "And I stayed in the mount, according to the first time, forty days and forty nights; and the Lord hearkened unto me at that time also, and the Lord would not destroy thee." (Deuteronomy 10:10)

Boy, the Lord really needs to lighten up. Perhaps He should try yoga or tai chi or deep breathing exercises.

In 1 Kings there is a brief forty-day mention, in reference to the prophet Elijah: "And the angel of the Lord came again the second time, and touched him, and said, Arise and eat; because the journey is too great for thee. And he arose, and did eat and drink, and went in the strength of that meat forty days and forty nights unto Horeb the mount of God." (1 Kings 19:7-8) That must have been some meal to tide over Elijah for forty days! Probably an all-you-can-eat buffet.


In the New Testament, three of the Gospels -- Matthew, Mark, and Luke -- make mention of a forty-day period in reference to Jesus and his temptations by Satan:

     "Then was Jesus led up of the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil. And when he had fasted forty days and forty nights, he was afterwards an hungred." (Matthew 4:1-2)

     "And immediately the Spirit driveth him into the wilderness. And he was there in the wilderness forty days, tempted of Satan..." (Mark 1"12-13)

     "And Jesus being full of the Holy Ghost returned from Jordan, and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness. Being forty days tempted of the devil. And in those days he did eat nothing: and when they were ended, he afterward hungered." (Luke 4:1-2)

I suppose the lesson to be learned here is: Whatever you do, don't let the Spirit lead you into the wilderness.

Finally, in the Acts of the Apostles, St. Luke speaks of the forty days that Jesus spent on earth after his resurrection up to the point of his ascension into Heaven. "Until the day in which he was taken up, after that he through the Holy Ghost had given commandments unto the apostles whom he had chosen. To whom also he shewed himself alive after his passion by many infallible proofs, being seen of them forty days, and speaking of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God." (Acts 1:2-3) Of course, the doubting apostle Thomas did not believe it was actually Jesus resurrected from the dead until he had touched the Messiah's wounds ... and then asked to see two forms of identification.


So, biblically, the period of forty days appears to hold some great holy significance. Forty days of rain for Noah. Forty days on Mount Sinai for Moses. Forty days to Mount Horeb (aka Sinai) for Elijah. Forty days of temptation by the Devil for Jesus, as well as forty days on earth after his resurrection until his ascension. Forty days of Lent. Forty days, forty days, forty days...

All I know for sure is that there are about fifty days between Ash Wednesday and April 15, when my taxes are due, not counting Sundays ... and alas, I fear the Spirit is leading me deeper and deeper into the wilderness.

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