“These forty days of Lent, O Lord, to you we fast and pray…” We all know that Lent has 40 days but it may cause us to wonder about the significance of the number 40. Did you know that the number 40 appears in the Bible nearly 200 times?!!! What’s up with that?
In the Bible, the number 40 is symbolic and represents a significant period of time during which an individual’s faith is tested. So, what is Lent? It is a significant period of time during which OUR faith is tested. Another word for test is examination or assessment. During Lent, we assess where we are at in terms of our commitment to the Lord.
A good way to help our students begin Lent is to help them assess themselves. In the Catholic Tradition, we call this an examination of conscience. By doing an examination of conscience, we can identify the areas of our life where we need to grow and then develop an action plan for Lent so that our prayer, fasting, and almsgiving has a clear focus.
Back to the number 40. Whenever we see the number 40 in the Bible we are being alerted to symbolic significance. The Catholic Church does not adhere to a literal translation of the Bible but recognizes that the truth of the Bible is expressed in many forms, including figurative language. If not, it would be an incredible coincidence that everything during biblical times took either 40 days and nights or 40 years!
A fun exercise with kids is to invite them to brainstorm examples of figurative language that they are familiar with (e.g. it’s raining cats and dogs). In this way they come to see that something may be true but not necessarily fact (an important concept to help them understand that Catholics believe the Bible is without error when it comes to TRUTH, but not in terms of facts).
Of course, you can send your students on a Scripture search to locate and describe uses of the number 40 in Scripture. Here are just a few: Genesis 7, 8 (Noah); Exodus 24:18 (Moses on the mountaintop); Deuteronomy 8:2 (Israel in the desert); 2Samuel 5 (David’s reign); 1Kings 19:8 (Elijah); 2Chronicles 9:30 (Solomon’s reign); Jonah 3:4 (Jonah); Matthew 4:2/Mark 1:13/Luke 4:2 (Jesus in the desert); Acts 1:3 (The Risen Christ’s appearances).