The Bible is rich with imagery and symbolism. Today's readings offer us the symbol of the rainbow - the sign God placed in the sky of his promise to never destroy the world he created. We also read about the desert which the Bible uses as a symbol of the place where we encounter God.
In the Bible, not only do things have symbolic value, but numbers do as well. For instance, the number seven is a symbol of the covenant. And when Jesus chooses twelve apostles, it is symbolic of the twelve tribes of Israel.
One number that has great symbolic value in Scripture is the number forty. For the ancient Hebrews, the number forty represented change and transition. When the Jews left their bondage in Egypt to enter the Promised Land, it took forty years, symbolic of Israel's transition from an enslaved people to a kingly people. Today's first reading recalls for us the great flood when it rained for forty days and forty nights. This is symbolic of God's desire to transform the world from a place of wickedness to a place of justice. And, in the gospel, Jesus is compelled by the Spirit to spend forty days in the desert doing battle with Satan. Jesus' forty day retreat was symbolic of his transition from a hidden life in Nazareth to a public ministry of announcing God's Kingdom which will eventually lead to his death and resurrection.
This past Wednesday, we began the forty days of preparation called "Lent". They are forty days of change for us. Like the Jews who traveled forty years in the desert, we are to spend these forty days transitioning from slavery to sin into the freedom of the Spirit. Like Jesus who spent forty days in the desert, we are to do battle with the devil by facing our weaknesses, our temptations and our sins. These forty days are meant to change us.
To help us maximize these days of preparation for our great celebration of Jesus' death and resurrection, the Church gives us three practices - three tools - so that we may overcome our weaknesses and temptations. They are prayer, fasting and almsgiving.
Prayer is simply communicating with God. Whether we pray the rosary, read the Bible or spend time quietly before the Blessed Sacrament, prayer is about tuning our minds and hearts to God's voice so that we will be ready to respond to him when he calls. To pray, all we need is time, a quiet place and a willing spirit. God will provide the rest. If these forty days are going to be a time of growth for us, we all need to make extra time for prayer. And that will require sacrifice whether it means skipping our favorite TV program, waking up earlier in the morning or taking time out of our lunch break. But we can be sure that if we make the time, God will bless us with much insight and consolation.
Fasting is the practice of going without food as a sacrifice. There are two days in the year when all healthy Catholics are asked to fast - on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Fasting is a powerful tool in our struggle against sin and temptation because it trains us to say "no" to our desires and impulses. It also helps us to grow in sympathy and compassion for the poor who go without food every day. Fasting also helps us in our prayer because it slows our bodies down making us better able to concentrate. And so fasting must be an important element of our Lenten journey.
Finally, almsgiving means giving money to the poor. Jesus teaches us that our religious practices are meaningless unless they help us to grow in love and compassion for our neighbor. Giving to the poor is one of the highest forms of sacrifice because what we give up actually benefits another person. It is also an act of faith by which we recognize that everything we have comes from God and belongs to God. It is a very good practice during Lent to take whatever money we may save from our sacrifices, whether it is ordering water instead of beer with dinner or not going out to eat on a particular day, and donating that money to a charity. By thinking more about others and their needs, our heart becomes more like Jesus', and we grow in love and faith.
These forty days are a time of transition and change in preparation for the celebration of Jesus' death and resurrection during Holy Week. They are a time for us to go into the desert with Jesus to face our temptations and sins. The desert is a symbol of the place where we encounter God. But it is also the place where people can get lost and die! By using the tools of prayer, fasting and almsgiving, we can be sure that the Holy Spirit will help us to grow beyond our slavery to sin and make real in our hearts the freedom we are called to by our baptism.