In the Scriptures, the number “forty” is derived from the number of gestational weeks in a pregnancy and symbolically represents periods of trial, testing, and waiting. The biblical use of the number forty has one underlying focus: it is a journey that always leads to a spiritual time of growth and change. During the 40 Days for Life campaign, people from all over the world gather in peace and love, united in the resolve to speak on behalf of the most defenseless who cannot speak for themselves, and for those whose hearts are not yet open to a culture of life.
But words are not enough! Made in the image and likeness of God and filled with the Holy Spirit, we use the tools of prayer and fasting to assist us in this work. Prayer and fasting are the foundation of the 40 Days for Life campaign.
Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, “I believe; help my unbelief!” And when Jesus saw that a crowd came running together, he rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, “You dumb and deaf spirit, I command you, come out of him, and never enter him again.” And after crying out and convulsing him terribly, it came out, and the boy was like a corpse; so that most of them said, “He is dead.” But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he arose. And when he had entered the house, his disciples asked him privately, “Why could we not cast it out?” And he said to them, “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer and fasting” (Mark 9:24-29).
When Blessed Mother Teresa was still a young nun, she felt called to serve God in a special way. In a letter to the Archbishop of Calcutta, she wrote these words—words that resonate so powerfully and vividly for us today: “I have been and am very happy as a Loreto nun. To leave that which I love and expose myself to new labors and sufferings which will be great, to be the laughing stock of so many, to cling to and choose deliberately the hard things of life, to loneliness and disgrace, to uncertainty—and all because Jesus wants it; because something is calling me to leave all to live His life and to do His work.”
The visible, public centerpiece of 40 Days for Life is a forty day, round-the-clock prayer vigil outside an abortion facility, standing as a witness to the beauty of human life while maintaining a peaceful and educational presence. The words of Mother Theresa encourage us to make a complete gift of ourselves where the seeds of prayer are nourished in the rich soil of loving obedience to God’s will. In order to respond faithfully when God calls us, we must not be afraid and trust God, allowing ourselves to become vulnerable before the God who made us. Jesus says, “Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me, cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:27). In following Jesus, we have to go with him the whole way. We have to totally accept his way of seeing life and then put that into practice in the way we live and pray.
Prayer is both a gift of grace and a response that takes effort on our part. In order for us to walk humbly before our God in the obedience of faith, we must appreciate the fact that we cannot do this all on our own; that we need God’s help every step of the way, especially during those times in our lives when we feel that God is not hearing or answering our prayers.
It is precisely during the 40 Days for Life campaign, when our prayer is tinged with trepidation and anxiety as the lives of innocent children are extinguished and the lives of their parents changed forever, that lead us into the very heart of Christ’s passion and death. The real cross of prayer is to believe that Jesus is Lord of every single situation in our lives. Nothing can separate us from the love of God, and His activity in our lives during 40 Days for Life reflects our own deliberate and sustained use of that trust. If we want prayer to become a part of who we are, we must wait on God and have complete confidence in His mercy and love.
Let’s be honest: the anger and hatred we feel at the shameful disregard for innocent human life burns like a fire within our hearts. How can we possibly pray for the staff inside a killing center or for the mothers (and consenting fathers) who take the lives of their own children? Jesus knows the human heart, and when our hearts are angry and bitter, when we harbor deep resentment—even though it may be justified—there is a part of us imprisoned by hate. Yet, in the midst of anguish and suffering, Jesus calls us to do what seems impossible: he tells us that we must forgive, pray, and love.
The truth that we will come to know in these forty days and beyond is that God always listens to and answers our prayers. When we pray at abortion mills in a public way, we enter into the wilderness: into that place of letting go. In the wilderness, we pray to know God, to experience the power of His Resurrection, and share in the very suffering of Jesus Christ. We ask God to lower the walls that those who support abortion have erected between Him and themselves so that by the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus may enter into their hearts willing to set them free to love. Christ allows us to see and understand that by the power of prayer people can truly be transformed and lives can be saved!
Jesus said that some forms of evil could only be driven out by prayer and fasting. Fasting simply involves renouncing an activity that can put a barrier between you and God. It is a way to open yourself more deeply to God’s love. Fasting is not just refraining from meals. During the 40 Days for Life campaign, consider fasting from television, the Internet, chocolate, coffee, etc. Take the time you usually spend in those activities and give it back to God.
Fasting and prayer are one of the most powerful spiritual combinations on earth. True fasting brings humility and alignment with God. It breaks the power of flesh and demons. It kills unbelief and brings answers to prayer when nothing else works (see the Catechism of the Catholic Church [CCC] 1434-1438). Of all the things we can do to enhance the power and focus of prayer, fasting is without a doubt one of the most potent. The power of fasting as it relates to prayer is the spiritual weapon that the Lord has given us to destroy the strongholds of evil. Prayer and fasting are the tools we must use to sow the seeds of the new evangelization so that a rich spiritual harvest of love may be reaped throughout the world.
The Gospel tells us what Christ expects from each of us as his followers: to do our duty as faithful servants. Sometimes this means being unpopular. Sometimes this means standing-up for truth. Sometimes this means bearing our share of hardships for the Gospel with the strength that comes from God (see 2 Timothy 1:8). It means asking ourselves, “Have I become so used to living in a culture of death, that goodness, beauty, and truth are only noble ideas and no longer a way of life”?
To be made in God’s image and likeness means that we are His divine offspring, His spiritual children (see Genesis 1:26). A child first learns to love in his mother’s womb, where he knows that the relationship of love and life is intensely personal (see Jeremiah 1:5 and Psalm 131:2). Like the vine attached to the branch, the child is literally attached to his mother, depending on her love for his very life. We also depend on the love of God for our life and He invites us every day to leave all behind—to live according to His will so that we may become worthy of the name “disciple.” Jesus shows us that even in the darkest hour of our lives, God’s love knows no end. Even in the hardships that come with standing for life, God’s love knows no bounds. Even in suffering for the sake of truth, God’s love holds nothing back.
There is no doubt in my mind that if Saint Paul were here with us today, he would not only support 40 Days for Life, but also encourage us as he did the Romans: “I appeal to you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect” (Romans 12:1-2). In the next forty days—in the total offering of ourselves in love and peace to the Lord, and to our brothers and sisters—let us “rejoice in our hope, be patient in tribulation, and constant in our prayer” (Romans 12:12).
©2011 Aurem Cordis and Deacon Harold Burke-Sivers