57Then the Jews said to him, ‘You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?' 58Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am.’ 59So they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple.
9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10And 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. 11And 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. 13He 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 new of God15and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’
Some numbers resonate more than others. Eighteen, for instance, I learned before attending my first bar mitzvah, is a special number for Orthodox Jews, and monetary gifts for the young man on his special day should be a multiple of that number. Eight delights the Chinese, and this past August 8th (08/08/08) was especially propitious for couples marrying, and for other investors. 7/11 is good not just for Slurpees but for craps. Three is the preacher's magic number, because it honors the Trinity, and because three points give (or should) a sermon movement. Numbers, numbers: I suspect my Dad played them from time to time because he would occasionally remark about a birthdate or a bowling score, "That's a good one."
Which brings me to forty, the number of days from Ash Wednesday to Easter, minus six Sundays because, I assume, Sundays are always an occasion for celebration and, perhaps, a reminder of the day toward which all of the seriousness and somber reflection are tending. Jesus spends forty days in the wilderness, Mark tells us, before he begins his earthly ministry in Galilee. Forty days of fasting. I Googled the question "How long can we go without food?" The answer buried in Survival without Food is: "From a medical standpoint, most agree that human beings can survive for up to four to eight weeks without food." Forty days would be right in the middle of that estimate. Jesus testing the limits of our mortality?
Maybe. It would be like him to identify with the poor and hungry, to learn in his own body the ache and indignity suffered by those who have no food for their table. He is the one, you will certainly remember, who tells his disciples that they share a meal with him when they share their bread with those who have none. So like Jesus, walking ever that lonesome valley, the good shepherd with us in the valley of shadows, about whom it can accurately be claimed that there is no extremity to which this life may take us but it has already, long ago, been pioneered by the rabbi from Galilee.
Save one. One extremity un-pioneered by the Great Pioneer. At least not in his own flesh and blood. I mean the post-forty years. He died (or more accurately, was put to death) in his thirties. So he was spared the downward arc of this mortal flesh. "Life Begins at Forty": that's a sardonic declaration if ever there was one. Sophie Tucker sang it and enumerated the advantages of turning that corner beyond callow youth, in lyrics replete with double entendres I'm too strait-laced to quote them here (but you will find them at: Sophie's Song); enough said that she celebrates the enforced slower pace of life. Will Rogers starred in a Depression era movie of the same name, "Life Begins at Forty," which, with his droll humor, suggests the title is meant as bittersweet. No wonder Jack Benny located the optimum age at thirty-nine. The rest is downhill.
Forty is a dangerous age is the caption on the self-portrait (?) caricature by Elena Kourenkova, a Russian artist living and working in Glasgow: extending eyebrows with forty lashes cannot wipe away the erosion of the years. And it will only get worse. It's a wilderness Jesus didn't have time to explore.
Two times forty is doubly troubling. A friend is reduced to wearing diapers in the last months of his life. A classmate languishes in hospice care. An athlete who held the high jump record for his high school for forty years can no longer navigate the room without a seeing-eye nurse. A learned colleague mentions twice in the same letter his wife's loss of vitality and his own reliance on doctors. God isn't the only one who knows that I am not what I used to be... or thought I was.
If forty is worrisome, eighty is sorrow-full.
Where's the good shepherd to supply my need, in the valley of shadows in north of forty?
I glean answers from the hardscrabble of that wilderness Jesus explored immediately before his public ministry. Remember? where Satan plied his tempting trade? With each of the parried temptations I take direction for the way to go through my remaining days.
1. Feed on more nourishing bread (less Pepperidge Farm, more manna). For me in recent months the fare has been handouts, from friends, classmates, and colleagues recommending books to read. If, as Jesus reminds Satan, we do not live by bread alone, but by the words from heaven above; then where do we nourish the soul on such manna, but from the store of "spiritual" treasures the people around us share with us. Tom got me to read "The River of Doubt"; Steve, "The Teammates"; and Bob, "The Shack." They would seem to be a grab-bag of reading: Teddy Roosevelt's last great adventure in the Amazonian wilderness; Boston Red Sox buddies meeting for one last time; and a father's healing epiphany after losing a daughter to a serial killer. But each, in very different ways, deals with loss. And loss marks the post-forty years; does it ever! Feeding on the experience of others who have been there and lost that, and doing it in the company of others similarly positioned in life, provides spiritual nourishment for the final journey. Yes, misery may love company; but misery is assuaged, shamed even, in the company of sympathetic others.
2. Lower expectations (don't jump from tall buildings). By mid-life one is pretty much what one is going to be. Grandma Moses is not a role model, no matter how loudly Dennis Hopper insists otherwise in his Ameriprise advertisements. We don't need a plan for life north of forty; we need a reduction in expectations, for others and for ourselves. Time to stop clawing our way up the ladder. Time to begin to consider the lilies and look at the birds of the air. Good red letter advice always, but especially on the downward arc of life. Eric Hoffer, author of True Believer, Dwight Eisenhower's favorite book, proposed that the first forty years of life be devoted to action and the remainder to reflection. I cannot say I personally endorse this division (I would set it at 70 - 30); but he's right in telling us that as we grow older we should tamp down the passions of personal ambition and ramp up the mellowing. At the end it's better to be missed than to have one's death notice occasioned by a sigh of relief.
3. Focus on those near at hand (don't try to save the whole world). It has become a Washington and Major League cliché that when your star is tarnished you explain your reason for retiring "because I want to spend more time with my family." I hear an echo, albeit with far more authenticity, of this explanation in the letters and conversations of my compatriots in retirement, that greater leisure provides time to focus on what and who really count. Family. Friends. Neighbors. Every husband should covet the endorsement a classmate's wife offers him, that he is simply the best man she has ever known. And he has been a man of no small other accomplishments. Dig a hole deep with compassion and generosity, so deep that everyone around you will miss you when you're gone. Yes, it's important to stand up and be counted on the issues of the day. Yes, impress others with your acumen and sagacity... whatever they are. But always and ever, keep the home fires burning. The measure, the penultimate measure, of a life is what those nearest to you think of you. How else would there be a Christian church two thousand years later, save through the intensity of devotion of twelve close friends of a Jewish prophet.
There, beyond forty, where Jesus did not go, there too it can be fairly reported he kept his promise: "I am with you to the ends of the earth."