In Holy Scripture, the number forty appears again and again: The Great Flood lasts for forty days and forty nights, the Israelites wander in the wilderness for forty years; Jesus is tempted by Satan for forty days.
In biblical speak, the number forty is not an exact extent of time. Rather, it means “a really long time,” and it always refers, whether in terms of days, weeks, or years, to a duration that taxes those enduring it almost to the breaking point. Those in the midst of such a period yearn for relief and deliverance and often call upon God for help.
I learned this week that the etymology of the word “quarantine” comes from this notion of forty, especially the forty days of Christ in the wilderness.[i] This gives a new depth of meaning to our experience of physical distancing in these days, to our collective self-enforced quarantine, because on the other side of every biblical forty is some new grace: A renewed earth for Noah, the Promised Land for the Hebrews, and Jesus’ own ministry of healing and reconciliation for all people.
We are already experiencing grace in unexpected places. Each week hundreds upon hundreds of people are participating in online worship, more people, in fact, than usually attend the Cathedral in person. Our Cathedral Good Neighbor program is reaching out to our entire parish family, creating webs of community. Our Acts in Easter bible study is engaging scores of parishioners in formation together.
What might the other side of our quarantine, our time in this wilderness, look like? God only knows, but I hope we have a hint in Psalm 40, when we read the words of one who has emerged from his own time of trial:
I waited patiently for the Lord;
he turned to me and heard my cry.
The Lord lifted me out of the pit,
out of the mud and mire;
The Lord set my feet on a rock
and gave me a firm place to stand.
The Lord put a new song in my mouth,
a hymn of praise to our God.
God is with us in our “forty.” God will weave redemption through our experience of these days. We will encounter new grace, and in times to come, we will add our own story to the wilderness journeys of our biblical sisters and brothers.