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Rev. Joey N. Welsh: Forty can be a very good number

Another Angle, the occasional musings of a Kentucky pastor. Forty can be a very good number. First published 5 March 2006, in the Hart County News-Herald
The next earlier Another AngleA life, a centenary, and some real sacrifice

By The Rev. Joey N. Welsh

As many people prepare to turn 40 they approach that birthday with dread. Now at the threshold of middle age, they fear that friends will send them dead roses or black balloons. They fear being thought of as "old." Legendary comedian Jack Benny held back the calendar by claiming famously throughout his comedy career on radio and television that he was 39. Born in 1894, Benny died in 1974, still claiming to be 39. In the realm of human vanity, 40 is a dreaded number.

In the Bible, though, 40 is an important number laden with many meanings. The period of the 40 penitent and reflective days leading up to Easter is called Lent. (Those 40 days don't include Sundays, since each Sunday is a festive day of triumph recalling the resurrection.) The name comes from "lencten," an archaic English word referring to the season of spring, the time when the days of sunlight became noticeably lengthened.

When I was a child in a Baptist family I knew nothing of the season of Lent. When I first heard the very word "Lent" spoken with reverence by some of my Catholic and Lutheran school friends, I thought they were crazy. As they spoke of "Lent" as a challenging time of meatless meals I thought they were saying "lint." I pictured the stuff that collected in my belly button after I visited a few nights at the home of my grandmother and great-grandmother, wrapped in their fuzzy blankets every evening when I went to sleep. I thought it was probably impolite, and surely unappetizing, to speak of the "lint" that I knew about in reference to meals.

Now I realize that Lent and 40 go together naturally, signaling a time of grounding and personal discipline leading to Holy Week and Easter. But why the number 40? As a biblical concept, the number has quite a heritage and pedigree referencing various periods of preparation:
In Genesis 7, the flood which destroyed the earth was brought on by 40 days and nights of rain.

Moses went up the mountain for 40 days of fasting and preparation before receiving the ten commandments. (Exodus 24)

The Hebrews spent 40 years in the wilderness before reaching the land promised to them by God. (that narrative spans several books of the Bible, from Exodus on into Joshua)

The spies sent to scope out the land of Canaan were there for 40 days before reporting back. (Numbers 13)

In I Kings 19, God's prophet Elijah withdrew from the threats of Ahab and Jezebel, traveling on for 40 days before reaching sanctuary in a cave where he heard the still, small voice of God.

Nineveh was given 40 days to repent by Jonah, after he relented from his unwillingness to go there and prophesy about God's judgment against that great city (Jonah 3)

And, perhaps most importantly, Jesus spent 40 days fasting in the wilderness in preparation for his ministry. (Matthew 4, Mark 1 and Luke 4
In the early days of the church Lent was a time when converts to Christianity were instructed about the faith in preparation for their baptism at Easter. Other people, who had committed grievous sin, used the time to repent prayerfully before being forgiven, reconciled, and welcomed back into the fellowship of the church. For Christians in general, it was (and remains) a time of prayerful self-evaluation heading into the great celebration of Easter.

Some people have used self-denial of some favorite food or habit as a symbol of sacrifice during the season, mirroring in a small way Christ's denial of self in the wilderness as well as his suffering and sacrifice during Holy Week. Others, however, have trivialized that practice by giving up things they never craved -- or had access to -- in the first place. Did you ever hear of the Kentucky fellow who decided to give up locally-grown watermelon for Lent?

Others, perhaps even more significantly, spend Lent doing deliberate acts of kindness and service for other individuals or for community organizations. The ways of observing Lent are limited only by the horizons of each person's creativity.For many Christians Lent is a very real time of very personal preparation in response to calls such as the following words, taken from the traditional United Methodist service for Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the season Lent. The pastor delivers the Invitation to the Observance of Lenten Discipline, saying in part:
I invite you therefore, in the name of the Church, to observe a holy Lent: by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God's Holy Word.
Today, March 13, is the first Sunday of the season of Lent 2011. Easter will be here on April 24. In light of the scriptures and the traditions and the opportunities they present, what will you make of your time between now and then?


This story was posted on 2011-03-13 07:41:25
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