40 is my favorite number in the Judeo-Christian library.
And, if you’re like me, with your post-enlightenment mindset, 40 conjures a concrete number of widgets, a concrete number of people, a concrete number of degrees, a concrete number of minutes, a concrete number of days, a concrete number of years, and so forth. You see, if you’re like me, with your post-enlightenment mindset, 40 conjures something that can be measured on a scale or charted on a graph.
But to approach 40 as set forth in the Judeo-Christian library with such a post-enlightenment mindset is to miss the point.
In biblical context, for an individual deemed impure to be made pure, a ritual bath containing some 40 measures of water was what it took. And in biblical context, for a world deemed impure (think about Noah now) for a world deemed impure to be made pure, a ritual bath containing some 40 days and 40 nights of water was what it took.
And of course, I’m referring to the epic flood mythology of Genesis. It’s an epic pre-dating Genesis by some thousands of years, by the way. So, it appears in Judaism, yes; but it also appears in Hinduism, Islam, African and American indigenous traditions to name only a few. The details vary, of course.
For Elijah to escape the evil queen for the mountain of God, a trek across the dessert lasting some 40 days was what it took.
For the emancipated Hebrew slaves to become a unified nation, another trek lasting some 40 years was what it took.
And for their emancipator (his name, of course, was Moses) for their emancipator to receive the so-called 10 commandments, a stay on Mount Sinai lasting another 40 days was what it took.
And, of course, for the public launch of that itinerant Jewish healer, mystic and miracle worker, that social change agent we call Jesus (he wouldn’t recognize that name, of course), a wilderness experience lasting (you guessed it) 40 days was what it took.
So, assuming a certain willingness on your part to seek a wisdom deeper than that which can be revealed by that post-enlightenment mindset that insists upon data that can be measured on a scale or charted on a graph, we arrive at the question of the morning: What, exactly, is this 40? And what does it mean to me?
And I would suggest that whether we look to the journey of Moses or the journey of Elijah or the journey of the emancipated Hebrew slaves or the journey of Jesus, it seems that the journey of 40 represents whatever it takes to get from old-life-no-longer to new-life-not-yet.
I’m sure you can relate.
Sometimes the journey of 40 is initiated by a loss. If you’ve experienced the transition of a loved one, you know about the journey from old-life-no-longer to new-life-not-yet. Into the sea you go.
Sometimes the journey of 40 is initiated by a circumstance. A new job, a new diagnosis, a new lover. I think it’s reasonable to say that Covid 19 found all of us between old-life-no-longer and new-life-not-yet. Who we are to become in the workplace is still unfolding. Who we are to become in social settings is still unfolding. Who we are to become in spiritual understanding is still unfolding. Into the desert we go.
Sometimes the journey of 40 is initiated by a calling — a tenacious dream or a deep desire. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks and Harvey Milk and Steven Hawking – each of these noble souls knew about a journey of 40 initiated by a calling. Each of these noble souls knew what it meant to leave the comforts of mediocrity for the vulnerabilities of possibility. Off to the wilderness they go.
So, whether we consider imagery such as at sea, in the desert, in the wilderness, I think we can infer that the journey of 40 through whatever it takes to get from old-life-no-longer to new-life-not-yet isn’t comfortable. It requires willingness and vulnerability; it requires courage and faith. After all, the writers didn’t send Moses to be on a mountain in Vail and they didn’t send Jesus to be in a desert in Sedona.
Marcus Borg spoke to this journey of 40, a journey superimposed by the early church onto the crucifixion/resurrection narrative, and I quote, “Some of us may need to die to specific things in our lives – perhaps to a behavior that has become destructive or dysfunctional, perhaps to a relationship that has ended or gone bad, perhaps to an unresolved grief or to a stage in our life that it is time to leave, perhaps to our self-preoccupation, or even to a deadness in our lives. It is possible to leave the land of the dead. So, the journey is about being born again – about dying and rising, about mortality and transformation.
“[And] who of us does not yearn for this? Who of us does not yearn for a fuller connection to life? Who does not yearn for an identity that releases us from anxiety and self-preoccupation? To be born again, it seems to me, corresponds to our deepest yearning. May we experience that internal transformation that is at the center of the Christian life. May we experience being born again.”
So, I say: Welcome to our exploration of that journey of 40 – that whatever it takes to get from old-life-no-longer to new-life-not-yet. In the end, I think it’s an exploration of profound comfort for its promise is that beyond the discomforts of being at sea or in the desert or in the wilderness – the value of the journey will make itself known.
Now, whether life finds us on a journey of 40 because of loss, circumstance or calling, history has suggested practices which can support us. Now, a common practice in many religious is fasting. Fasting is practiced by Buddhists, Muslims, Taoists, Jains, Hindus and dieters worldwide.
And if you’re like me, the first thing that comes to mind is chocolate. Now, that’s not because chocolate’s a big deal to me. For me to give up chocolate would be tantamount to my giving up Nicholas Cage movies or Glamour magazine or cucumbers. In other words, it’s pretty much a non-issue.
Now, if you want it to matter to me, tell me that I have to give up coffee. Tell me that I have to give up pizza. If you want it to matter to me, tell me that I have to give up good shoes.
And for many of us, fasting introduces overtones that go something like this: I have to give something up because I’m guilty.
I would invite you to consider that original sin is another construct of early church patriarchs who would leverage matters of piety to ends of power and politic. You were not born tainted and tossed upon some obstacle course of sensory temptation that you might struggle and strain to re-earn God’s favor before you die. Original sin is antagonistic to the tone of the Judeo-Christian tradition and to common sense itself.
You don’t have to earn God any more than the fish has to earn the water within which it floats. You do not have to earn God any more than the bird has to earn the air upon which it soars.
You do not have to be better for God. You do not have to be more for God. You do not have to be holier for God.
You just have to be available.
The water says, “I’ve been here all along – now float.” The air says, “I’ve been here all along. Now soar.” God says, “I’ve been here all along. Now allow.”
In a more traditional setting, I might say it this way: God has loved you since before you knew yourself to be you; and that this has never changed, will never change, can never change. I might say that God has a refrigerator door and that your picture hangs right in the middle of it, tucked between shots of Hank Aaron, Mother Theresa, Gandhi, Bach and Buddha.
Nor did Jesus die some 2,000 years ago because of something you did wrong last week. Jesus died some 2,000 years ago because his kingdom of heaven stood in direct tension with the kingdom of Caesar – a social order in which the lives of the marginalized many were sacrificed for the comforts of the powerful few.
This substitutionary sacrifice idea, as it’s called, is just another later construct of that patriarchal/political machine in which power and politic and piety were bound, one to the other and legitimized by those it benefitted.
And for many of us, fasting introduces overtones that go something like this: I have to give up something up because I’m flawed.
And so I invite you to consider that your incarnation isn’t tantamount to your having somehow fallen from God. God – again, not some moody man on a cloud but that ground of all beingness and possibility – has never been withheld from you, will never be withheld from you, can never be withheld from you.
And yet, in this popular western belief that we are flawed, we glorify the lowest within us despite the grandest within us. We’ve become like the proverbial circus elephant who spends his life walking in circles around a spindly peg because he’s come to believe in that thin string that dangles around his powerful leg. We continue to glorify the lowest within us despite the grandest within us when the very soul of us would have us glorify the grandest within us despite the lowest within us.
Great souls aren’t great souls because they are pious and perfect, you see. Great souls are great souls because they are ostentatious and audacious. Look around: lives of undeniable beauty and light have been lived by wildly imperfect people. From George Washington to Billie Holiday to Malcom X to my beloved John Denver – their contributions to our world weren’t born of their perfection, but of their courage. Their contributions to our world arose because they glorified the grandest within them despite the lowest that was within them.
For us in Unity, we turn to the words of Co-founder Charles Fillmore who wrote, and I quote, “In fasting, we as metaphysicians abstain from error thinking and meditate on spiritual Truth until we incorporate it into the consciousness.”
I have to admit, while I’ve never been Catholic, I’ve always been fascinated with the sacrament of confession. Maybe we should have something of a Unity confessional.
It would feel so good to accept forgiveness from time to time, even as we recognize that we’re the ones who issued the condemnation in the first place.
It was Bishop John Shelby Spong, who said that while humanity has spent the past 2,000 years looking backward and celebrating the notion that the divine might express as human, humanity must spend the next 2,000 years looking forward and accepting the dictate that the human might express as divine.
Let the encouragement of this writing be that you embark upon this exploration of the universal journey of 40, not in acknowledgment of some inherent guilt or innate flaw, but in acknowledgement of the audacious possibilities of God through you.