In the English language, the special season before Easter is called Lent. The word comes from the “lengthening” of daylight hours as we progress from the darkness of winter to the spring sunshine. But there are other languages, such as Spanish, that have a name for this season that is derived from the word for forty. Lent is the season of the forty days.
OK, we do 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 forty days. Moses was up on Sinai receiving the Ten Commandments for forty days. The Israelites wandered around the desert for forty years. Still the question remains: Why forty? Probably because this is the normal number of weeks of human pregnancy.
Each of these biblical “forties” was a necessary yet not-so-comfortable prelude to the birth of something new. In Noah’s case, it was the rebirth of a sinful world that had been cleansed by raging floodwaters. In Moses’s case, it was the birth of the people of the covenant. For the nomadic Israelites, it was the start of a new, settled existence in the Promised Land.
And 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. But think back to the story of Moses and the Israelites. Pharaoh did not take the loss of his cheap labor lying down. Likewise, 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.
Our battle is not against flesh and blood, says St. Paul (see Ephesians 6:12). If you don’t know your enemy and his strategy, you are bound to lose. The temptation of Jesus in the desert (Luke 4:1–13) shows us the tactics of this “dark Lord.” Bread, a symbol for all that sustains our physical life, is a great blessing. But Satan tries to make material things the ultimate goal, distracting us from a deeper hunger and a more satisfying food. Political 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.
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. Sounds a lot like some of the Pharisees. Jesus triumphs in his forty-day 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 releases us from superstition, magic, and all arrogant religion. And the Word of God is revealed as the sword of the Spirit, the secret weapon that slashes through the lies of the enemy.
So our forty days? It should be all about using the tactics modeled by our captain—prayer, fasting, and humble giving—to break all the bonds that hold us back from true spiritual freedom.
We often have a problem, however. Though the season is all about newness, we find ourselves going back to the “same old.” “So what are you giving up?” we often ask each other, as if Lent were mainly a matter of meatless Fridays and forgoing chocolate.
Obviously, if we want to see ourselves emerge from this forty-day challenge as new persons, we will have to go a bit further than this. So in this book, I have collected forty ways to make these forty days a life-changing experience.
My aim is to put into your hands a practical manual with new tips, collected from master trainers, to help you burn fat, build spiritual muscle, and win this most critical competition.
The best way to make use of this book is as follows: Set aside fifteen to twenty minutes of quiet time before it begins, or as early in the season as you can. Ask the Holy Spirit, your personal trainer, to guide you. Then prayerfully
read through the entire list of forty suggestions provided in the table of contents, looking for just one to three ideas that jump off the page and seem to be, for you, the most important and most doable. Read the specific pages that further explain these particular tips and commit to doing these things faithfully throughout the season.
Next, commit to read each tip and its accompanying reflection, one per day, from Ash Wednesday all the way to Easter. You will probably find yourself incorporating several more of these spiritual exercises to your regimen as time goes on—if not every day, at least on the day that you read them.
One more thing about the forty days—the Western Christian tradition never counts Sundays as fast days, since they always are a mini-celebration of Christ’s resurrection. If you count the days of Lent from Ash Wednesday to Holy Saturday, skipping Sundays, you will count exactly forty “training” days. The six Sundays of the season are “rest days” when we nonetheless continue to reflect on the great themes of this special season through the Mass readings.
We’ve offered not only training exercises for the forty days, but reflections to nourish you on the rest days as well, not to mention some essays celebrating the victory of Easter. In the appendix at the back of the book, there are specific resources suggested to help you carry out many of the training tips. If we make good use of this book during this special season, so pregnant with possibilities, I’m convinced that we will find ourselves breaking through into deeper experience of the joyful liberty and strength that Christ died to win for us. Darkness will give way to increasing light.
Something new and wonderful will indeed be born in us!