Sunday, 4 March 2012

The 40 days of Lent

There is not much about the number 40 in All Things Made New, because although it often crops up in the Bible it doesn't really feature in the Book of Revelation. However, in a recent catechesis for Lent, Pope Benedict VI explored the significance of the number in a way that made clear the importance of number symbolism for the authors of Scripture and the Catholic tradition. He said:
"Forty is in fact the symbolic number in which salient moments of the experience of faith of the People of God are expressed. A figure that expresses the time of waiting, purification, return to the Lord, the awareness that God is faithful to his promises.

     "This number does not represent an exact chronological time, divided by the sum of the days. Rather it indicates a patient perseverance, a long trial, a sufficient period to see the works of God, a time within which we must make up our minds and to decide to accept our own responsibilities without additional references. It is the time for mature decisions.
     "The number forty first appears in the story of Noah. This just man because of the flood spends forty days and forty nights in the ark, along with his family and animals that God had told him to bring. He waits for another forty days, after the flood, before finding land, saved from destruction (Gen 7,4.12, 8.6)."
He then enumerates all the other occurrences of the number in the Old and New Testaments, concluding: "A spiritual context is described by this recurring number forty, one that remains current and valid, and the Church, precisely through the days of Lent, intends to maintain its enduring value and make us aware of its efficacy."

This Pope, as a student of St Bonaventure for whom numerology was something of an obsession, has written and spoken about number symbolism on many occasions. It would be interesting to assemble these quotations together, as a way of encouraging a careful study of this important element in the language of revelation.

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