HOMILY for Wednesday in Week 1 of Lent
In many ways our practice of Lent seems inspired by the Ninevites. Indeed, the blessing of ashes which we Dominicans use on Ash Wednesday refers directly to the “custom of the Ninevites” in using ashes as a sign of sorrow and repentance. And Jonah gives the Ninevites 40 days to repent, which, of course, is the number of days in Lent if we exclude the 6 Sundays.
The number 40 is significant in the Bible, and today’s reading gives us an occasion to consider its symbolic meaning. On Sunday we recalled God’s covenant with Noah. What we didn’t read was that Noah spent 40 days and nights in the ark during the Flood, and then waited another 40 days and nights for the waters to recede. This is the first occurrence of the number 40 in the Bible, and it is connected with ideas of purification, renewal, and culminates in a new covenantal relationship with God. In a similar way, Moses spends 40 days and nights in prayer on Sinai, and then he receives the Law which is a sign of God’s covenant with Israel. The people of Israel journeyed in the desert for 40 years, and experienced God’s closeness and fidelity, and that period of 40 culminates with the gift of the Promised Land, another sign of God’s covenantal relationship with his people. So, as the Holy Father said recently, “ is a number that expresses the time of waiting, of purification, of return to the Lord, of knowledge that God is faithful to His promises… it indicates a patient perseverance, a long trial, a sufficient length of time to witness the works of God…”