40 days. 40 years. These numbers appear often in the sacred text, and they remind us immediately, of course, of Lent—which starts tomorrow!
At the beginning of Lent we think of Israel’s 40-year journey in the desert and Jesus’ 40-day fast in the desert. In both of these desert treks, there were temptations.
The Israelites often asked Moses why he had brought them out to the desert to die. Why couldn’t they go back to their slavery under the Egyptians, they asked, where at least they would have food to eat?
The Israelites were looking back to a place of slavery that had become a distorted hope for the good life.
Even when Moses sent a group of twelve spies for 40 days to scout out the Land of Canaan as the future home for the Israelites promised by the Lord, all the scouts but Caleb and Joshua discouraged the people with a doom-and-gloom report about the possibility of ever entering this land they’d been promised would be flowing with milk and honey. They didn’t believe God would help them. The Promised Land now loomed as a threat to their very lives. The report of the scouts resulted in a great outcry, and every tent was filled with the sobs of the families of those who had witnessed the mighty hand of their God leading them through the Red Sea. They wept over the false belief that God was setting them up for defeat. They wept because they could not arouse in their hearts faith in the God who had set his heart on them because he loved them (see Dt 7:7).
They no longer looked forward to a future promised them by a God who had proven himself before their eyes to be the powerful God who had chosen them as his very own.
They looked back at what seemed suddenly a paradise to them. They wished they could end their nightmare with Moses and the Lord and return to the slavery of the Egyptians.
After his baptism in the Jordan, Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert. There he fasted and prayed before beginning his ministry. At the end of his fast, Jesus was hungry and weak, and he was tempted by Satan in the desert wilderness. “Command these stones to be turned to bread,” the Evil One said. “Worship me and I will give you all the kingdoms of the world.” And, finally, Satan tempted Jesus to put God to the test: “Jump from a pinnacle and rely on the angels to break your fall.” It’s hard to imagine anything more tempting than these offers.
(For the accounts of Jesus’ desert temptations, see Matthew 4:1-11, Mark 1:12-13, and Luke 4:1-13.)
Jesus kept looking ahead with faith in the promise of God.
Unlike the Israelites wandering in the desert who demanded food from Moses, Jesus doesn’t fail God, despite his hunger. With the words, “Get away, Satan! It is written: ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and only Him shall you serve,’” Jesus rejects the temptation to false worship the Israelites had succumbed to when they worshiped the Golden Calf. And in his refusal to throw himself down from the temple to test whether God would keep his word, Jesus refused to do something spectacular and risky to make God provide his fidelity.
Jesus didn’t look for the easy way out, a distorted utopia* that was really a slavery. He looked into his Father’s face and walked forward as the Father’s beloved Son, surrendering to his will.
When we begin the 40 days of Lent, we’ll hear the words repentance, penance, sorrow for sins, fasting, Lenten resolutions.... It can degenerate into “hanging in there” for 40 days without chocolate or TV, cherishing the secret hope that we’ll lose weight.
Lent is really about where you’re looking. Which direction you are facing.
The Israelites regretted they had listened to Moses. They kept looking back at what they’d lost back in Egypt: the safety, the food, the predictability. They seemed to have forgotten the more unpleasant aspects of their Egyptian slavery. They had also forgotten that 400 years earlier, Joseph had said on his deathbed: "God will surely come to your aid, and then you must carry my bones up with you from this place” (see Ex. 13:19).
When we indulge in looking back with regret, we often don’t see correctly, and our hearts don’t remember the promises God made to us and the displays of powerful love we have seen.
This Lent, if you have regrets that are still lingering in your heart, regrets that make it hard for you to trust in the God who loves you and has chosen you as his own, why not take these 40 wilderness days of Lent to gently heal what is preventing you from walking forward into the promises of God for you?
In my book, Reclaim Regret, I talk about how we are the ones—not God—holding ourselves in bondage to the past. God looks forward, not backward. God keeps his promises even when his people don’t. He wants us to move onward through our lives trusting in his love, not looking back with regret and wishing we could change the past. I pray that you can move forward in faith and love through this Lenten season and discover every day anew the love of a God who keeps his promises to you.
Sr. Kathryn Hermes, FSP
* I am grateful personally for Amedeo Cencini for this idea of utopia as a nostalgic longing for the past, presented in his book, "Abbracciare il futuro con speranza"