Lent is based upon the forty days of ‘x’ found in Scripture. It is not just the forty days spent in the Wilderness by Christ, but we find as well that particular length of time is important to the Scriptural narrative:
Seven days from now I will make the rains pour down on the earth. And it will rain for forty days and forty nights, until I have wiped from the earth all the living things I have created.” (Gen 7:4 NLT)
Then Moses disappeared into the cloud as he climbed higher up the mountain. He remained on the mountain forty days and forty nights. (Exo 24:18 NLT)
So he got up and ate and drank, and the food gave him enough strength to travel forty days and forty nights to Mount Sinai, the mountain of God. (1Ki 19:8 NLT)
On the day Jonah entered the city, he shouted to the crowds: “Forty days from now Nineveh will be destroyed!” The people of Nineveh believed God’s message, and from the greatest to the least, they declared a fast and put on burlap to show their sorrow.
(Jonah 3:4-5 NLT)
Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted there by the devil. For forty days and forty nights he fasted and became very hungry. (Mat 4:1-2 NLT)
Of course, fasting was not something required of the disciples of Christ until after He had left:
Jesus replied, “Do wedding guests mourn while celebrating with the groom? Of course not. But someday the groom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast. (Mat 9:15 NLT)
Further, there is the evidence of forty years for the Wilderness Journey, among other times that the number enters into the framework.
Why is this important?
First, Lent is approaching, and like all good Protestants, and we were taught that Lent was completely evil. Of course, some of that came from Catholics themselves who observed Lent by giving up Chocolate and debasing themselves for two days (Lundi Gras and Mardi Gras) before Ash Wednesday. You would hear about lent for those three days in South Louisiana, and you would hear about the complaints from the rest of us as we were served fish every Friday from the school cafeteria.
But, for those who observe – observe, not ritualized, not traditonalized, or in any way treat the Lenten season as a ‘have to do’ – Lent, it is not merely a time of giving up but adding to. For those who observe the 40 days before the Great Passover, Lent becomes a time for reflection in which they both give up something routinely enjoyed in their lives as well as add something – perhaps family time, devotional time, or even some type of community service. During this time, they remember the forty days in which Christ spent alone in the wilderness battling first His flesh and then His mind. For a time after that, He having borne the fast, He spent with the wedding party of His disciples, until His crucifixion.
Fasting was a regular item in for the people of Israel, who did it in the necessarily flamboyant style of sackcloth and ashes, but this was not the fast which God desired:
“Shout with the voice of a trumpet blast. Shout aloud! Don’t be timid. Tell my people Israel of their sins! Yet they act so pious! They come to the Temple every day and seem delighted to learn all about me. They act like a righteous nation that would never abandon the laws of its God. They ask me to take action on their behalf, pretending they want to be near me.
‘We have fasted before you!’ they say. ‘Why aren’t you impressed? We have been very hard on ourselves, and you don’t even notice it!’
“I will tell you why!” I respond. “It’s because you are fasting to please yourselves. Even while you fast, you keep oppressing your workers. What good is fasting when you keep on fighting and quarreling? This kind of fasting will never get you anywhere with me. You humble yourselves by going through the motions of penance, bowing your heads like reeds bending in the wind. You dress in burlap and cover yourselves with ashes. Is this what you call fasting? Do you really think this will please the LORD?
“No, this is the kind of fasting I want: Free those who are wrongly imprisoned; lighten the burden of those who work for you. Let the oppressed go free, and remove the chains that bind people. Share your food with the hungry, and give shelter to the homeless. Give clothes to those who need them, and do not hide from relatives who need your help.
“Then your salvation will come like the dawn, and your wounds will quickly heal. Your godliness will lead you forward, and the glory of the LORD will protect you from behind.
Then when you call, the LORD will answer. ‘Yes, I am here,’ he will quickly reply. “Remove the heavy yoke of oppression. Stop pointing your finger and spreading vicious rumors! Feed the hungry, and help those in trouble. Then your light will shine out from the darkness, and the darkness around you will be as bright as noon. The LORD will guide you continually, giving you water when you are dry and restoring your strength. You will be like a well-watered garden, like an ever-flowing spring. Some of you will rebuild the deserted ruins of your cities. Then you will be known as a rebuilder of walls and a restorer of homes.
“Keep the Sabbath day holy. Don’t pursue your own interests on that day, but enjoy the Sabbath and speak of it with delight as the LORD’s holy day. Honor the Sabbath in everything you do on that day, and don’t follow your own desires or talk idly. Then the LORD will be your delight. I will give you great honor and satisfy you with the inheritance I promised to your ancestor Jacob. I, the LORD, have spoken!” (Isa 58:1-14 NLT)
It is not about showing something to God, but about showing God to someone else.
We know that fasting was ordered in the New Testament as well. First, Christ mentioned that the Apostles would fast when He was no longer with them. Then we find Saul fasting for three days before his baptism:
He remained there blind for three days and did not eat or drink. (Act 9:9 NLT)
Further, in Acts 14.28, when ministers were appointed, they were done so with fasting and prayer.
So, why not take sometime before we enjoy the Great Passover with some for reflection and proper fasting – in which we take something of ourselves and give something of ourselves, not according to Tradition or ritual, but according to biblical precedents?