We all know that Lent has 40 days, but it may cause us to wonder about the significance of the number 40. Moses, Elijah and Jesus fasted in the desert for 40 days each. The Israelites wandered in the desert for 40 years, Ezekiel laid on his right side for 40 days to “bear the iniquity” of Judea’s sins (Ezekiel 4:6), Noah and his family were on the ark for 40 days and 40 nights (Genesis 7:4), three kings reigned for 40 years each: Saul, David and Solomon, Jonah warned ancient Nineveh for 40 days that its destruction would come because of its many sins (Jonah 3: 1-10). These are some of the examples of the significance of the number 40 in the Bible. The number 40 generally symbolizes a period of testing, trial or probation. A time of discipline and preparation is important before any important event or decision in life. We too have 40 days of lent before us. Prayer, fasting and almsgiving are the three tools we use as we prepare to celebrate the great mystery of Easter: the passion, death and resurrection of our Lord.
This one should be the easiest of the three. As Christians we are supposed to be praying anyway, so why make it a requirement? Because the sad truth is that many Christians do not pray, at least not with any regularity. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches us that prayer is loving conversation with the God who created you. Take time to talk to the Lord. Thank Him for all that He has given you, ask Him what you really need. Try picking one or two of the common prayers like the Rosary or the Divine Mercy chaplet or the stations of the cross or read a chapter of the Bible every day. Do what you can, but just keep working towards more prayer. As Saint Thomas Aquinas said, “if a Christian is not growing, he is dead. There is no stagnation in Christ.”
Fasting and Abstinence have nothing to do with hating or despising the world and its material goods. Neither are they ways of punishing ourselves. Fasting is one way in which we deepen our awareness of God. By denying ourselves food, or a luxury (the sweets, the cigarettes, the alcohol) what else do we do except say “I do not depend on these things”. It enables us to step back from the usual habits and distractions and give particular attention to God. An outward restraint can be a sign and symbol of an inner attention, and a help towards it. “Fasting is food for the soul, nourishment for the spirit”. (Ambrose of Milan).
Almsgiving is really just another name for charitable giving. Giving to charity is showing caritas, love, for our neighbour just as Jesus told us to. St Francis of Assisi said, “in giving we receive.” During Lent, we are asked to focus more intently on “almsgiving,” which means donating money or goods to the poor and performing other acts of charity. As one of the three pillars of Lenten practice, almsgiving is “a witness to fraternal charity” and “a work of justice pleasing to God.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 2462).
Wishing you all a fruitful Lenten season,