Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Days in the Desert: Why 40?

We often downplay the importance of Jesus' 40 days in the desert and focus only on the temptations Jesus faced at the end. If we discuss those 40 days at all, it is usually from the perspective of making Jesus even more susceptible to the temptations.  

Perhaps the 40 days of contemplative prayer is not what made the temptations worse, but what gave Jesus the inner strength to resist. It is worth pointing out that ancient Judaism believed that 40 days after conception a person is fully formed and receives a soul.

The number 40 is generally a mystical number in Judaism and one associated with birth.   Here is from The Complete Idiots Guide to the Talmud:  

Ritual immersion [mikvah] is done in a minimum of 40 seabs (a unit of volume) of water. The Hebrew letter "mem" begins both the words mikva and mayim (water). Each Hebrew letter has a numerical value (called gematria). The numerical value of "mem" is 40. When God wanted to rebirth the world, it rained for 40 days causing a flood. The flood eradicated all trace of the appalling spiritual state that existed up to that point and created a new mankind. In a sense, the entire world was immersed in a mikval! The Jewish people were born during 40 years in the desert. Similarly, by receiving the Torah conveyed to Moses over 40 days, the Jews were born as a new nation. The number 40 clearly has great meaning to Judaism. According to at least one source, it always means cataclysmic change and new creation.

So in the story of Jesus in the desert, the 40 day period of preparation is at least as important as the temptations themselves. It was the time in which Jesus was "immersed" in God, at the end of which Jesus was fully formed, turned his back on the temptations of the world, and began his ministry.  

I see this story as is laying down a blueprint for our own approach to becoming "fully formed." If we are to reborn into a new being that can resist the temptations of security, power, and spiritual elitism (the three temptations of Jesus), it will only be through preparing ourselves through periods of contemplation, our own mikvah in the desert.

Pax Christi,
Roger Sessions

This blog is copyright 2010 by Roger Sessions. Please do not reprint without permission.

1 comment:

  1. ahh, a deeper answer to the question formed in your mind LAST Lent, if I remember correctly. This is a very nice reflection and thank you for it! When you l lay these 40 days beside "living in the now" practice, spiritual doors open, at least for me. Of course, this is the contemplation you talk about. "God is not IN the present moment, God IS the present moment." Thanks, Brother Roger