Saturday, 14 May 2016

40 Days and 40 Nights: ordeal or opportunity?

 We've now passed a small milestone on the EU referendum countdown. It's just 40 days and 40  nights till we cast our vote in the biggest political decision any of us are likely to make in our lifetime. Will they be an ordeal, or an opportunity?

It's a number rich in symbolism for Jewish and Christian believers. Let's start with the Hebrew Bible. 40 days and nights was the length of time Moses spent on the mountain when God made a binding covenant with his people. It was a period of preparation, of seeking wisdom and deepening understanding, days of awe when an unknown future awaited and faith was sorely tested.

I've likened this country's relationship to the European Union to the biblical covenant, for strictly speaking, that's what a treaty is - a solemn, binding relationship in which undertakings are made and promises given. It's always important to prepare properly for covenant making and covenant renewing. These days before the vote are an opportunity to do just that: take time to prepare thoroughly for the decision we make. It takes time, patience and often a lot of struggle to do this well. Moses knew that. But we may have to learn it in a fresh way this year. To leap into a momentous decision without taking the trouble to understand what it may mean would be irresponsible. 

40 days was also the length of time Jesus spent in the wilderness at the outset of his work. The first three gospels all agree that it was a vitally formative time for him as he embarked on his ministry: to seek solitude in a fierce landscape, lay himself open to testing and ordeal, get to know himself in a new way, probe the mysterious purpose of the God he knew as Father, and emerge strengthened to encounter whatever lay before him. We commemorate these 40 days in the season known as Lent. Popularly, it's a time to "give things up" in memory of Jesus' desert ordeal. Fasting is certainly a central aspect of Christian spirituality, even if it's not nowadays practised as it used to be. But at its heart, Lent means preparing for Easter and celebrating the Lord's Passover. 

These coming 40 days are calling us to a tough journey. Discipline and hard work come into things if we are serious about doing the "work" I mentioned earlier: pondering the issues surrounding our EU membership, engaging with the debate in a serious way, listening carefully to all sides of the argument and weighing things up. We may feel that at times this aspect of the preparation process is being increasingly submerged by the rising babble of Babel-noise where attentive listening, thoughtful discernment are surely vital to an intelligent well informed decision. Perhaps we all need to be a bit more Lenten in our approach and turn the volume down so that we can contemplate the issues with equanimity, make sound judgments, hear the still small voice of conscience and of God.

Finally, 40 days marks the period of time beginning on Easter Day when Jesus revealed himself to his followers as having been raised from death. It ends with Ascension Day when according to the New Testament story, he was taken from this world no longer to be physically present among humanity. Strictly, Eastertide lasts 50 days rather than 40 because its culmination lies in the gift of the Holy Spirit to humanity, whose advent we celebrate this coming Sunday of Pentecost. But the 40 days of the risen Christ's Easter presence among his disciples is still a significant period. 

So the coming 40 days could be for us all a time of what we might call resurrection. It's a metaphor in this context but it may be a helpful one. It could be an opportunity to "rise" above self concern and obsession about our own fortunes in the referendum debate, and start to think seriously about others and their needs. I've written on this blog about how we should be thinking about the "common good" of all the peoples of continent, not just "what's best for Britain". We need to think globally about the UK's and Europe's place in the world, and what we, in partnership with the nations of the EU can bring to it in terms of peace, justice, security, good international relations and our care for our planet. Through these neighbourly concerns we would find ourselves "rising" above our deadening obsession with self-concern. Resurrection can be an image of transcending our limitations and turning our faces outwards in justice and in love.

I am writing in analogies, of course. 40 days and 40 nights represent a symbolic period. But perhaps this threshold, coming as it does around the time of Pentecost when we seek the wisdom and charity of the Spirit, can give us pause to think about the journey we are making. Will it be a time of thoughtful, disciplined preparation during which we learn and grow? Will it be a time to renounce self-serving arguments in favour of enlightened self-interest that is informed by the Spirit of God and embraces the concerns of others? Will it be a time to "rise" above ourselves and think in a truly outward-facing global way? 

Will these coming days be Sinai, Lent or Easter? How wonderful if they could be all three! 

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