Forty Days & Forty Nights
‘Forty days and forty nights, Thou wert fasting in the wild; forty days and forty nights, tempted and yet undefiled.’
In my mind, there is surely no finer Lenten battle cry than these words, which remind us of Whom we imitate in this season of Lent. This recalls a most vivid episode in the Synoptic Gospels: the temptation of Jesus in the desert – where our Lord wages war against Satan and prevails, a foretaste of the everlasting Paschal victory we bring to mind at the end of Lent. There is just so much to unpack from this episode, so let’s dive in!
Straight from His baptism, we read in the Gospels that ‘Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert, to be tempted by the devil.’ (Matthew 4:1). He fasted for forty days and forty nights, which seems an arbitrary number of days and nights to us in this day and age – but definitely not without precedence in the Scriptures!
Looking back into the Old Testament, we see this number 40 repeated again and again, attached to a period of penance and preparation, or that of divine punishment. For instance:
God punished mankind by sending a flood over the earth that lasted forty days and forty nights (Genesis 7:12)
the people of Nineveh repented with forty days of fasting when Jonah preached the destruction of Nineveh (Jonah 3:4)
Moses and the Hebrew people wandered in the desert for forty years (Numbers 14:34)
the Prophet Ezekiel had to lie on his right side for forty days as a figure of the siege that was to bring Jerusalem to destruction (Ezekiel 4:6)
the Prophet Elijah fasted and prayed on Mount Horeb for forty days (1 Kings 19:8)
Moses fasted forty days and forty nights while on Mount Sinai (Exodus 34:28)
With this symbolism in mind, some may wonder, ‘Why this penance and preparation? Why did the Spirit lead our Lord to do so?’ Yes, our Lord did not need to do penance to purify Himself – but the life of our Lord in this world is replete with many things He did not need to do! Rather, it is not for Himself that He does these things – but for us that we may follow His example and benefit from it, as is apparent when we contrast this episode with events which foreshadowed it in the Old Testament.
Consider that the first Adam, formed of the earth, living in friendship with God and having everything he needed in Paradise of Eden, was tempted by Satan and incurred the Original Sin by his disobedience. The second Adam, the God-Man, in the barren desert, fasted and rebuffed the temptations of Satan not once, or twice, but three times!
Also consider how the Hebrews - the descendants of Israel - the chosen people of God set free from Egypt, whinged and murmured in the desert at the slightest annoyance – to the point of even worshipping a golden calf just because Moses stayed a long time up on Mount Sinai! In comparison, Christ as the epitome of the descendants of Israel - the New Moses of the New Law - subjected Himself wholly to the will of God and did not provoke Him even when He was tempted to do so by Satan.
In his time in the desert, Christ was tempted three times by the devil? Again, it seems like an arbitrary number, but this warrants a closer look at how Satan tempted our Lord.
First, Satan tempts Christ to turn stones into bread for him to eat. (Matthew 4:3, Luke 4:3)
Second, Satan taunts Christ to throw Himself down from a tall place for angels to catch Him. (Matthew 4:5-6, Luke 4:9-11)
Third, Satan offers all the nations to Christ if our Lord bowed before Satan and worshipped Satan. (Matthew 4:8-9, Luke 5:7)
(Personally, with the last temptation, I can never resist thinking ‘You dare ask God Himself, creator of all, to worship you, a mere creature?!’)
Coming back, these three temptations, though seemingly random, actually represent the three enemies of our soul, as listed in the Gospel of St. John – concupiscence of the flesh, pride of life, and concupiscence of the eyes (cf. John 2:16). In perhaps more modern (and hopefully familiar) terms, these are materialism (which concerns the pleasures of the body), egoism (which concerns the excessive inflation of the self), and hedonism (which concerns the riches of the world).
Therefore, by the example of our Redeemer, we must wage war against these three enemies every day, especially in this season of Lent! We must fight with tooth and nail these threefold temptations, but how shall we do that? For that, perhaps we shall look at how our Lord rebuffs Satan’s words each time:
Against the first temptation: ‘It is written: Not in bread alone doth man live, but in every word that proceedeth from the mouth of God.’ (Matthew 4:4, cf. Luke 4:4)
Against the second temptation: ‘It is written again: Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.’ (Matthew 4:7, cf. Luke 4:12)
Against the third temptation: ‘Begone, Satan: for it is written, The Lord thy God shalt thou adore, and Him only shalt thou serve.’ (Matthew 4:10, cf. Luke 4:8)
It is interesting to note that during this entire exchange, Christ and even Satan quotes Scripture in this exchange! Perhaps this shows how we should make ourselves more familiar with Scripture (a good practice to pick up for Lent, through Lectio Divina perhaps? Read this blog to find out more).
Looking at the answers of Christ to Satan, they all are one: God! We must rely on God completely, and serve and love Him as He deserves, uniting our wills to His.
Therefore, we should take these forty days to imitate Christ and look at how we ensure that God is at the centre of our lives. By prayer, fasting, abstinence and almsgiving – in whatever we decide to give up and pick up for Lent – we should do it for the love of God, that we may love Him wholly and unconditionally – for (in the words of St Paul to the Romans) ‘If God be for us, who is against us?’ (Romans 8:31).