Joseph Pronechen is staff writer with the National Catholic Register since 2005 and before that a regular correspondent for the paper. His articles have appeared in a number of national publications including Columbia magazine, Soul, Faith and Family, Catholic Digest, Catholic Exchange <i>, and <i>Marian Helper. His religion features have also appeared in Fairfield County Catholic and in major newspapers. He is the author of Fruits of Fatima — Century of Signs and Wonders. He holds a graduate degree and formerly taught English and courses in film study that he developed at a Catholic high school in Connecticut. Joseph and his wife Mary reside on the East Coast.
Forty days after Easter — Jesus’ Resurrection — we celebrated his Ascension to the right hand of the Father. Before that, during Lent we prepared for 40 days. Both times brought a major change.
“Forty” — 40 — is no stranger in Scripture. We know certain numbers appear in the Bible and have great significance. One of those is 40. Before we look further, let’s clearly realize there are no magical properties with the number. This is not numerology. But certain numbers have, or advocate, great meaning as they’re associated with major events in both in the Old and New Testaments. Forty — 40 — is one of them.
At the same time, 40 is related to events even in times after the New Testament, running up to our own day, most always echoing that spiritual connection.
There certainly should be a lesson and direction for today where we see lockdowns and quarantines because of the current pandemic.
Let’s start with some highlights in the Old Testament. They begin in Genesis.
We know about Noah and the Ark. Rain fell for 40 days and 40 nights during the Flood (Genesis 7:4). We also know why God flooded the earth. The plague of sin was overwhelming. There was a major change when the rain ended and the earth was cleansed.
Moses was 40 when he fled Egypt to Midian, 80 when God had him lead the Israelites out of slavery, and 120 when he died (Acts 7:23-36). The math is simple, the changes monumental.
Moses spent 40 days and nights on Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments. A most monumental change. So happened the second time he went to the mountain with God for 40 days and nights without food or drink (Exodus 34).
The Hebrew’s Exodus lasted 40 years. Because of their idolatry and constant sinning, the generation that came out of Egypt had to wander those 40 years in the desert until only the next generation could enter the Promised Land. The 40 years in the Bible is the time for a new generation to rise, as “he made them wander in the wilderness 40 years, until all the generation that had done evil in the sight of the Lord was consumed” (Numbers 14, 32:13). Forty years was the standard measure of a generation. Another major change.
For 40 days and 40 nights the prophet Elijah had to walk, doing so without eating, before he got to Horeb, the mountain of God, where the Lord would give him major directions on what he was to do concerning the Israelites. (1 Kings 19).
For its great sins, “Yet 40 days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” warned a reluctant Jonah. That destruction would come if the people didn’t repent and would be a major change for the city. But it wasn’t destroyed because of a different major change as “the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them.” Even the king ordered everyone to repent.
Another major change came to the Jewish people when King David reigned over Israel for 40 years.
When the New Testament begins with the birth of Jesus, the 40s continue. After Jesus was born, 40 days later Joseph and Mary presented him in the Temple according to Jewish law. We continue to celebrate the 40 days from Christmas to the Presentation. Then Matthew, Mark and Luke tell us Jesus fasted “40 days and 40 nights” in the desert before he was tempted and began his public ministry which signaled an all-around major change, as we know.
Earlier in the week that Jesus was crucified, he told his disciples who were pointing out the beauty of the temple and the buildings, “You see all these, do you not? Truly, I say to you, there will not be left here one stone upon another, that will not be thrown down.” He prophesied the destruction Jerusalem (Matthew 24:1-2). Indeed, that’s exactly what happened 40 years after his Crucifixion when the Romans destroyed the temple and the city. That surely was a major change for the Jewish people who Jesus wept over because they did not accept him.
Again, we celebrate the 40 days from Jesus’ Resurrection to his Ascension. It began with a major change, rising from his death on the cross. Here’s something else scholars have thought after much study: Jesus was dead and in the tomb for about 40 hours between 3 pm Friday and the time he rose in his Resurrection on Sunday morning.
Of course, there was a double major change at the Ascension. First, Jesus was returning to the right hand of the Father. Second, he told the apostles that now they were to “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age” (Matthew 28:19-20).
Let’s skip to the 14th century and the Black Death, or Plague, and its later outbreaks in the 1600s. Venice, for instance, quarantined ships arriving. The quarantine lasted 40 days to make sure all aboard were free of disease before they were allowed to disembark. It was a way to stop the epidemic from spreading. The Venetians called it quaranta giorni — “40 days.”
It’s easy to see quaranta is Italian for “40.” And see it’s relation to “quarantine” which also harkens back to the Latin root quadraginta, meaning “40.”
To change “roots,” in May 1537 another major “40” change came along, this time starting in Milan, with implications for the Church to this present day — the beginnings of 40 Hours Devotion.
Two years after its start, Pope Paul III wrote in approval: “Our beloved son the Vicar General of the Archbishop of Milan at the prayer of the inhabitants of the said city, in order to appease the anger of God provoked by the offences of Christians, and in order to bring to nought the efforts and machinations of the Turks who are pressing forward to the destruction of Christendom, amongst other pious practices, has established a round of prayers and supplications to be offered both by day and night by all the faithful of Christ, before our Lord's Most Sacred Body, in all the churches of the said city, in such a manner that these prayers and supplications are made by the faithful themselves relieving each other in relays for 40 hours continuously in each church in succession, according to the order determined by the Vicar…”
Notice how this practice echoed the “40’s” of the Old and New Testament in some respects in the way it mentioned the “offences” of Christians leading to possible attack and destruction, and the need to turn to the Lord.
A few years later St. Philip Neri made this a practice for a confraternity in Rome. Around the same time, St. Ignatius Loyola did the same, exposing the Blessed Sacrament “during the carnival, as an act of expiation for the sins committed” during those events. Since the exposition lasted 40 hours, it was also known as Quarant'Ore in Italy and then it spread.
By 1592 as more danger appeared, Pope Clement VIII strongly advised, “to establish publicly in this Mother City of Rome an uninterrupted course of prayer in such wise that in the different churches on appointed days, there be observed the pious and salutary devotion of the Forty Hours, with such an arrangement of churches and times that, at every hour of the day and night, the whole year round, the incense of prayer shall ascend without intermission before the face of the Lord.”
He continued, “Pray for the concord of Christian princes, pray for France, pray that the enemies of our faith the dreaded Turks, who in the heat of their presumptuous fury threaten slavery and devastation to all Christendom, may be overthrown by the right hand of the Almighty God.” Naturally, this devotion was again praying for a change for the better.
The Catholic Encyclopedia says all the evidence “only goes to show that the practice was then being introduced of exposing the Blessed Sacrament with solemnity on occasions of great public calamity or peril, and that for such expositions the period of 40 hours was generally selected. That this period of 40 hours was so selected seems in all probability due to the fact that this was about the length of time that the Body of Christ remained in the tomb, and that the Blessed Sacrament in the Middle Ages was left in the Easter Sepulchre.”
St. Charles Borromeo speaks of these 40 hours of praying and “distinctly refers it to the 40 hours our Lord's Body remained in the tomb, seeing that this was a period of watching, suspense, and ardent prayer on the part of all His disciples.”
Forty Hours continued to grow and many churches and dioceses strongly support this devotion, which can certainly bring tremendous changes, beginning with the heart and soul.
We can surely take lessons from the situations and changes that “40” signals and contains. Especially now that we are living in a most unusual time in the year 2020 — and doesn’t 20+20 equal 40? And haven’t we seen how much “40” announces “change” in Scripture? Isn’t the Lord telling us something, beginning with this pandemic? Which way will society and individuals change? A return to the Lord and away from the flood of worldliness and sins, or…?
Exactly 40 years ago in an approved apparition, Our Blessed Mother echoed Fatima again instructed:
I want the Rosary to be prayed every day…I want it to be prayed permanently, within the family … including the children old enough to understand…
Renew the five first Saturdays. You received many graces when all of you did this.
Pray, pray, my son, the Rosary for all the world. Tell believers and non-believers that the world is threatened by grave dangers. I ask the Lord to appease His justice, but, it you don't change, you will hasten the arrival of the Third World War.
Do not be grieved. I am with all of you even though you do not see me.
I am the Mother of all of you, sinners. Love one another. Forgive each other.
Isiah Chapter 40 has this to say:
A voice cries:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
4 Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
5 And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all flesh shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
And in Psalm 40, David’s prayer of “Thanksgiving for Deliverance and Prayer for Help,” we pray:
I waited patiently for the Lord;
he inclined to me and heard my cry.
2 He drew me up from the desolate pit,
out of the miry bog,
and set my feet upon a rock,
making my steps secure.
3 He put a new song in my mouth,
a song of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear,
and put their trust in the Lord.
4 Blessed is the man who makes
the Lord his trust,
who does not turn to the proud,
to those who go astray after false gods!
11 Do not thou, O Lord, withhold
thy mercy from me,
let thy steadfast love and thy faithfulness
ever preserve me!
12 For evils have encompassed me
my iniquities have overtaken me,
till I cannot see;
they are more than the hairs of my head;
my heart fails me.
13 Be pleased, O Lord, to deliver me!
O Lord, make haste to help me!
17 Thou art my help and my deliverer;
do not tarry, O my God!