“O Lord, Throughout These Forty Days” Written by Claudia Hernaman (1838-1898) and paraphrased in the version we sing today by Gilbert Doan (b 1930), this hymn is based on the Gospel text from Matthew in which “Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” The stark simplicity with which this hymn conveys its message evidences the fact that it was originally published in the Child’s Book of Praise (1884), a collection of Sunday School songs. With this hymn we begin our penitential observance of Lent.
In the Early Church (from Pentecost through the persecutions which ended in the mid-fourth century), Easter was the primary celebration of Christ’s life. There was no observance of Christmas, Epiphany, Advent or Pentecost. Easter was seen as the climax and focal point of the year, and it was on Easter Eve the catechumens (those studying for entrance into the Church) were baptized. Such a major yearly event in the life of the Church required some preparation time, and this was variously set from 6-8 weeks before Easter, and this became Lent. As late as the 5th century, Lent was still set at eight weeks, but did not include Saturdays (which were Sabbath Days) and Sundays (which are Lord’s Days), but which still allowed forty weekdays of Lent. We still maintain the tradition of not observing Sundays of Lent, but rather Sundays in Lent. Therefore, the forty days of Lent do not include the Sundays.
The Early Church Fathers did not choose the number forty randomly; rather, its theological significance had spanned the ages: the Israelites wandered in the desert for forty years, Moses was on Mt Sinai for forty days, and Jesus was tempted in the desert for forty days. In the Early Church, this Lenten time was devoted to study and to devotion and to penitence—certainly there was no celebration involved. Eventually, canon law was added that forbid the eating of meat during Lent and forbid all be unaccompanied singing in church. In the Roman Catholic Church, these strictures where only loosened in the 1960s.
“O Lord, Throughout These Forty Days” is faithful to the gospel text from Luke as it recounts the narrative of Christ’s temptation in the wilderness. The first half of each stanza recounts a fact, the second half of each stanza prays for this fact somehow to be inculcated into our lives. We sing, “O Lord, throughout these forty days, You prayed and kept the fast,” a factual recounting of the narrative. But, in the second half we pray, “Inspire repentance for our sin, and free us from our past.” We likewise pray that God would give us the “nerve, Your skill and trust in God’s eternal Word” that we might likewise successfully counter Satan’s schemes. The third stanza speaks to the Lenten season when we pray, “So teach us to deny ourselves, since we have known God’s love.” Our penitence and privations during Lent (should we choose to observe them) are not done from the perspective of the Law, and we know they do nothing to earn our own salvation. Most religious traditions—particularly those involving denials of some sort—tend to degenerate into legalism. Yet, they don’t have to. We can follow the church year which outlines the life of Christ, allowing us to experience the wonder of Advent and Christmas, the hope of Epiphany, the sorrow of Lent and Good Friday, and the resurrection joy of Easter. Or, we can just celebrate Easter, surrounded with fifty-one Sundays devoted to preaching/singing about topics of interest. We don’t have to follow the liturgical year for our salvation, but doing so helps us relate to Christ incarnationally—He was a man who experienced the same temptations, sorrows, and joys as we do, and knowing this enriches our own faith. We don’t have to follow the lectionary every Sunday. In many churches, a pastor preaches on his favourite (and simplest) Bible verses repeatedly. With the lectionary, we are confronted with reading a great majority of the Bible each year. Doing so does not earn our salvation, but it helps us to stay grounded in scripture and not the opinions of merely-pious theologians. We don’t have to follow any particular liturgy or ritual. All that is really required (according to the New Testament) is that we worship in spirit and truth, singing, praying, and learning. But how much do we lose when we are not able to sing the words of scripture back to God in our liturgy, or sing of God’s works through Word and Sacrament? In all these cases, our practices enhance our faith and our continual process of sanctification.
If the gentle readers of music notes choose to give up something for Lent, they know it is because they will be improved by it. We can be, in the words of Thomas a Kempis, “Imitators of Christ” who spent forty days in the desert preparing for the events of Holy Week and Good Friday. He had much more to prepare Himself than we do! Yet, we can pray during this Lenten season the words of stanza four:
Be with us through this season Lord, and all our earthly days,
That when the final Easter dawns, we join in heaven’s praise.