21 February 2021

40 days and 40 nights, when
the rains come down and
we are placed in quarantine

Masks from Venice … part of the tradition of Carnival before Lent, and part of the story of quarantine and the plague (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 21 February 2021

The First Sunday in Lent (Lent I)

10 a.m., the Parish Eucharist

The Readings: Genesis 9: 8-17; Psalm 25: 1-9; Mark 1: 9-15

‘Noah and the Dove’ by Simon Manby (2006) … a sculpture in the gardens of Saint John’s Hospital, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen

One of the traditions associated with Lent throughout the English-speaking world is singing the hymn ‘Forty days and Forty nights’ (Irish Church Hymnal, No 207).

There are some people who feel Lent has not started until they sing ‘Forty days and Forty nights.’

But Lenten traditions are different everywhere. In many European countries, Lent begins when Carnival ends. There is great fun leading up to Lent: street parades, costumes, dressing up, often with a touch of bawdy behaviour.

The masks that are part of Carnival are a hint of those parties and traditions in Venice – apart from one particular mask. The mask of the plague doctor (medico delle peste) with its long beak is one of the most recognisable Venetian masks.

But this did not begin as a carnival mask. It began as a method of preventing the spread of the plague and was designed by a 17th century doctor who adopted the mask as one of many sanitary precautions while he was treating plague victims.

The plague doctors who followed this example wore a black hat and long black cloak as well as the mask, white gloves and a staff so they could move patients without having physical contact with them.

The Venetians also gave us the word quarantine, which comes from quarantena, or ‘40 days’ in the Venetian language. It was first used during plague epidemics in the 14th and 15th centuries to designate a period that ships were isolated before passengers and crew could go ashore in Venice.

For many of us, Lent is not just going to last for 40 days until Easter, but is going to appear like a continuation of the long quarantine we are going through because of the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown.

There are descriptions of 40-day quarantines repeatedly in the Hebrew Bible, for many centuries before the Venetians introduced the maritime practice. And when these 40-day periods occur, they are virtually always momentous and life-altering.

During the story of the flood in the Book of Genesis, which is recalled in our first reading (Genesis 9: 8-17), Noah self-isolates with his family in a wooden ark for 40 days and 40 nights, while the rains pour down and the world as they know it drowns in a deluge of rain and rising seas.

In the Exodus story, Moses separates himself for 40 days and climbs Mount Sinai to put even more distance between himself and his people, who have committed idolatry by making and worshipping a golden calf.

At a crisis moment point in his life, the Prophet Elijah flees into the desert for 40 days and nights (see I Kings 19). There, he waits for his fears to subside and for God to give him direction.

The Epistle reading (I Peter 3: 18-22) compares the waters of the flood with the waters of Baptism.

In the Gospel, there are 40 days from the birth of Christ to his Presentation in the Temple (see Luke 2: 22-38).

The Gospel reading this morning (Mark 1: 9-15) recalls the 40 days Christ spends in the wilderness. Later in the Gospel stories, there are 40 days from Christ’s Resurrection to his Ascension.

What do these 40-day stories have to teach us today, during our own quarantine?

None of these 40-day quarantines is compulsory. Instead of seeing them as the result of outside coercion, we might see these Biblical examples of isolation as thoughtful expressions of free choice, voluntary decisions meant to respond constructively to an existential crisis.

Something happens to these biblical figures after their periods of seclusion and social distancing come to an end, once the crisis has passed and they emerge from their respective shelters.

They transform.

Noah and his family – as well as the large number of animals and birds – begin the process of re-populating the earth, as creation starts anew with a new covenant, marked by the rainbow. More than simply playing a role in God’s cosmic drama, Noah becomes the father of the world.

Moses returns to his people with a second set of the Ten Commandments – he had destroyed the first set out of anger – and with new maturity and insight, and he forgives their sins.

Elijah has a theophany, an experience of God, not in a whirlwind or an earthquake but through a ‘still, small voice.’ With this new understanding, he is able to calm his soul and eventually continue his mission as a prophet.

In today’s Gospel reading, Christ’s 40 days in the wilderness link his Baptism in the Jordan with the beginning of his public ministry in Galilee.

It may be a mistake to think of 40 days as a literal representation of time. The Talmud suggests it takes an embryo 40 days to form in the womb. For some later commentators, those 40 days are the time it takes for a new entity to come into being. So, 40 days may well be a metaphor for gestation, a pilgrimage towards new birth.

I cannot count how many days I have been in semi-isolation or in ‘quarantine’ in west Limerick this time. But it is far more than 40 days since I have been outside Co Limerick, and it is far more than 40 weeks since I have been outside Ireland.

It may take much more than 40 days before this lockdown eases. But the roll-out of the vaccine gives hope that it is not going to go on for another 40 weeks.

And yet, this crisis will pass.

The story of Noah reminds us that when the rains come, they will not continue ceaselessly, but shall end with a rainbow, a sign of hope. The story of the Flood says that despite human behaviour and failings, God rescues and saves us and holds out the promise of brighter days.

We are all changing, evolving, getting ready to emerge from our cocoons. Our social distancing from one another is not all bad. In fact, I think it will lead to new perspectives on ourselves, on our priorities, and on our world.

The challenge of this crisis has clear economic, social and political dimensions. But, like Lent, it has a spiritual dimension too. How we respond to it may well define or redefine our moral characters and priorities, as well as our souls, for many years to come.

And so, may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

He was in the wilderness for forty days (Mark 1: 13) … on Gramvousa, off the coast of Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Mark 1: 9-15 (NRSVA):

9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11 And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’

12 And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13 He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15 and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’

‘He was in the wilderness for forty days’ (Mark 1: 13) … in the Kourtaliotilo Gorge in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Liturgical Colour: Violet.

The canticle Gloria is omitted in Lent.

Penitential Kyries:

In the wilderness we find your grace:
you love us with an everlasting love.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

There is none but you to uphold our cause;
our sin cries out and our guilt is great.
Christ, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.

Heal us, O Lord, and we shall be healed;
Restore us and we shall know your joy.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

The Collect of the Day:

Almighty God,
whose Son Jesus Christ fasted forty days in the wilderness,
and was tempted as we are, yet without sin:
Give us grace to discipline ourselves
in obedience to your Spirit;
and, as you know our weakness,
so may we know your power to save;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Lenten Collect:

Almighty and everlasting God,
you hate nothing that you have made
and forgive the sins of all those who are penitent:
Create and make in us new and contrite hearts
that we, worthily lamenting our sins
and acknowledging our wretchedness,
may receive from you, the God of all mercy,
perfect remission and forgiveness;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Introduction to the Peace:

Being justified by faith,
we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. (Romans 5: 1, 2)


Through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who was in every way tempted as we are yet did not sin;
by whose grace we are able to overcome all our temptations:

Post Communion Prayer:

Lord God,
you renew us with the living bread from heaven.
Nourish our faith,
increase our hope,
strengthen our love,
and enable us to live by every word
that proceeds from out of your mouth;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.


Christ give you grace to grow in holiness,
to deny yourselves,
and to take up your cross and follow him:

‘He was in the wilderness for forty days’ (Mark 1: 13) … at the edge of Ireland on Mizen Head (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)


207, Forty days and forty nights (CD 13)
324, God, whose almighty word (CD 19)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

Material from the Book of Common Prayer is copyright © 2004, Representative Body of the Church of Ireland.

Some of the ideas in this sermon are in an article by Rabbi Niles Elliot Goldstein in the Jewish News of Northern California (10 June 2020)

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