As the 40 days of Lent start, this period of penitence may come across as a gloomy period. Certainly, penitence is not be enjoyed for its own sake, but it can be enjoyed in expectation for what lies on the other side of it.
In biblical literature, the Israelites often used numerals as figures of speech. Therefore, when numerals appear in the Bible, they may oftentimes be understood as shorthand notations. For example, the numeral 7 denotes perfection, the numeral 40 denotes purification.
We read in the Gospels (e.g., Mat 4:1) that, after being baptized by St. John the Baptist, Jesus is led into the desert for a 40-day stay and is then tempted by the enemy. A similar journey through the desert was made by Moses and it lasted 40 years. The place may be the same, yet the time was different, but it is not important. What is important is that the purpose of that period in the desert was the same: purification, as denoted by the numeral 40. Moses had to be tested in the crucible for a pure faith. Jesus had to be tested so that His followers would see that His faith was pure.
But perhaps the best known period of purification in the whole Bible was the time of the Exodus, when God led His people through Moses out of Egypt into the desert to the Promised Land. This journey took, again, 40 years, to put the faith of Israel to the proof. The Nile valley is not that far from Palestine, but God desired to purify His people by taking Egypt out of them.
God understood that although life in Egypt was slavery, His people would still look back to it in the crucible of the desert. For, though slavery, they were used to their abodes and livelihood. The work was strenuous, but they would be fed, if only enough to be worked like beasts again on the next day.
But the God of Israel is the God of Mercy and He would not lead His people into the desert to die, but to leave behind an illusion of life, so that they could live. God provided them with food that would fall down from heaven (Ex 16), with water that would flow out of a rock (Ex 17:6), with a pillar of cloud to guide them, a pillar of fire to give them light (Ex 13:21-2). They were given the Commandments (Ex 20:1) to shape their hearts after God’s own heart. And the people of Israel kept these things in the Ark (Heb 9:4), for even after getting to the Promised Land, they longed for that time in the desert, because God had never been so close to them again. Or rather, they had never been so close to God, put everything into the hands of God and trusted in Him for all their needs, Who had never left their side
Jesus did the same, depending on the Father for everything. In no other place is this made more clearly than in the Garden of Gethsemane (Lk 22:42), but the same attitude had already been demonstrated to the people in Galilee after His spending 40 days in the desert (Lk 4:14).
Today, the Church, guided by that same Spirit that led Jesus into the desert and that guided Moses, calls on the people of God to step into the desert as their ancestors and their Lord did. We are asked to leave what we do not need in “Egypt” and to walk with the Lord as our pillar of light for 40 days. Yet, it is still a walk through the “desert”, so we suffer from the privation of some needs as Our Lord did, trusting that the Father will provide. We strive to trust in Him with our cares, for He takes every step with us. And at the edge of the desert lies the Promised Land, the Resurrection of the Lord.
Father, You call us out of Egypt in this Lent so that we learn to live this life trusting in You. Lead us from this Egypt to your Promised Land where death is defeated. Be our light and give us the bread from Heaven all the days of our lives. Amen.