The number 40 occurs something like 146 times in the Bible. Moses and the Israelites spent 40 years in the desert preparing to enter the promised land. Elijah went without food or water for 40 days at Mount Horeb. And Jesus spent 40 days and nights fasting in the desert. And from Wednesday we are invited to spend 40 days preparing for Easter.
When we come across a recurring number like this, we do well to remember something a friend of mine told me, ‘the point is not that the ancient authors gave us literal texts or numbers that we were intelligent enough to interpret symbolically but rather they gave us symbolic stories that we are often stupid enough to interpret literally .
The number forty is symbolic – it indicates a time of testing, of training. The training we need is to help us to escape from our own slavery in Egypt or where ever our Egypt happens to be – the discipline we need to help us break free of our addictions.
Addictions mean we live by proxy- they are the false gods we worship and they drain our energy. And we have an ever increasing number of them – nicotine, drugs, work, even exercise can become an addiction. Lent is a time when we can try to confront our addictions.