A reflection for the First Sunday of Lent, Year B
by Brett Salkeld
Catholics know that 40 is an important number in Scripture. It rained for 40 days and 40 nights leading to Noah’s flood. Israel was 40 years in the desert after the flight from Egypt. Jesus was in the desert for 40 days before beginning his public ministry. And Jesus spent 40 days after the Resurrection with the disciples, teaching them, before he ascended into heaven.
But why 40? The explanation is obvious once you see it. 40 is the number of weeks a human child gestates in its mother’s womb. When the Bible uses the number 40, it is telling us that something is gestating, something new is preparing to be born.
Israel’s 40 years in the desert is certainly the most explicit example of this. The parting and crossing of the Red Sea is a symbolic conception of the people of Israel (almost too graphic for our modern sensibilities if we think about the details) and the crossing of the Jordan is their birth into their homeland. The law Israel was given in the desert is practically its DNA.
When John began baptizing in the Jordan River, he knew what he was doing – he was calling Israel home, back to the place of its birth. Baptism is rebirth! And what this Sunday’s reading from 1 Peter says about the flood is true in some way or other of all the great water stories in the Old Testament. Noah’s flood, Moses and the Red Sea, Jonah and the great fish – they all prefigure our baptisms.
In each case, like in baptism, there is death, and there is new life. Paul says we are baptized into Christ’s death so that we might rise with Him. Water is chaotic, dangerous. It drowns and kills. But it is necessary for life, as a desert people know better than most. And when the water breaks, the birth is imminent.
While only our Gospel reading for this weekend actually mentions 40 days, both the first and second readings have obvious connections to this theme. The flood of Noah followed 40 days and nights of rain. And the Ascension noted at the end of the passage from 1 Peter followed 40 days of preaching and teaching.
It is not hard to imagine the ark as pregnant with Noah’s family and all the living creatures with them, which it birthed into a new covenant with God. In Jesus’s 40 days with the disciples between the Resurrection and the Ascension, the Church is gestating. It will be born at Pentecost.
Scripture loves the image of the woman in labour. Indeed, it may be the most common image of pain in the whole Bible. What an evocative image! Giving birth is at once painful, intensely so, and a joyous occasion. Suffering, the Bible is telling us, is not meaningless, but can be put to good ends. Indeed, like mothers bearing children, we regularly accept suffering for the sake of the good ends we seek.
As we begin this season of Lent, these 40 days, the church invites us to consider our approach to suffering in our lives. Do we avoid it at all costs? Or do we accept it and order it to good ends? We have been blessed in that even suffering we undergo which does not lead in any obvious way to some intended good end, suffering that threatens us with meaninglessness, can be joined to Christ’s suffering and applied to His
good ends, whether we can see those clearly or not.
Lent, like baptism, is about death and new life. The small sufferings we take on voluntarily in Lent make us better at suffering. As odd as it sounds, given that suffering is unavoidable, it is probably something worth getting good at. Not that we might suffer more but so that the suffering which is coming one way or another may be put to better use.
These practices in Lent are putting to death in us those things – fear, selfishness, entitlement – that prevent us from suffering well. And as they do that, they are also preparing us for new birth, bringing to life in us things like patience, courage, and generosity. We have 40 days. Let us pray for the grace to use them well.
The readings for the First Sunday of Lent, Year B, are
1 Peter 3:18-22
Brett Salkeld is Archdiocesan Theologian for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Regina. He is the author of several books, including, most recently, Transubstantiation: Theology, History, and Christian Unity. He lives in Regina with his wife, Flannery, and their seven children. His weekly podcast, Thinking Faith! (with Deacon Eric Gurash) can be found at https://thinkingfaith.libsyn.com.