Brief synopsis of the readings: Our first reading from Genesis begins with Noah and his family shortly after the flood. God promised a new Covenant with Noah, his family, and with all living creatures. God promised never again to flood the whole world. As a sign, after a rainstorm God will put a rainbow to remind us of this. In Mark’s Gospel Jesus is driven into the desert for forty days where he was tempted by Satan. After John’s arrest Jesus returned to Galilee and proclaimed a message of repentance.
If you haven’t heard, today we commemorate the first Sunday of Lent. It’s a strange time because we are called to both repentance and hope. We know that Easter is six weeks away but in the meantime we are called to prepare. Catholics of my generation and earlier often felt that Lent was a type of punishment. We were told that we needed to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday and abstain from meat on those days plus all Fridays in Lent. Additionally we were encouraged/told/coerced into “giving up” something we enjoyed. As children it was sweets or soda. When we became adults we many of us look at alcohol or shopping.
These images of Lent, I suggest, may have served us well as children. Giving up sweets may have taught us the discipline not to become dependent on things we put in our mouth. It may have taught us that breaking habits can make our lives easier.
But if we’re doing the same thing as adults we may be missing out. I’ve spoken about this before but the growth of discipleship allows and encourages us to continue to plumb the depths of what God wants and hopes for us. But sometimes it means letting go of things we were taught as children.
Enter our first reading. As toddlers we learned about Scripture from Bible stories, and Noah’s Ark was if not the first, among the first stories we read. That makes some sense as even a child can picture it. Noah builds and Ark, loads it with a pair of every animal on earth, endures a flood, and repopulates the earth.
But as adults many of us read this with some horror. If you’ve never had a near drowning experience I can tell you it’s not as much fun as it sounds. Earlier in Genesis God decided that the people he created had become wicked and “he regretted that he had made man on the earth, and his heart was grieved.” God then decided to flood the earth and kill all living creatures except Noah and his family, and one pair of every creature on the earth.
A few years ago a coworker of mine asked me an interesting question: “What about the fish? Were they less wicked than land animals?” I explained that this was one of the reasons I’m not a fundamentalist Christian and I don’t believe this event really happened. Rather it was a parable that was written to give us a better understanding of our relationship with God. If we’re horrified with idea of massive death of all land creatures, that may speak well to our reverence for life. The first readers of this story may well have not cared much for the lives of people they didn’t know and certainly didn’t care about animals.
But, and I still struggle with this, what exactly is the better understanding we should learn from this? Some look on this and other readings and take away the belief that as we are learning to be human, God is learning to be God. This belief strikes most of us as puzzling, but it certainly makes this story more understandable. God essentially had a temper tantrum and destroyed much of the earth. Recognizing his mistake he restored the world, starting with Noah, his family, and all the animals on the earth. As a sign of his repentance he promised Noah that he would never do this again and gave us the rainbow as sign of his promise.
Frankly this is a bridge too far for most of us. I’m not certain I can worship a God who did this out of anger. But if we can set aside all the death, perhaps there is a grain of truth in this.
Today’s Gospel shows Jesus preparing for Easter by spending time in the desert. When we think about the desert we think about all the luxuries that don’t exist there, among them food, water, and shelter from the sun. Living in the desert calls us to live in a way where we have to seek out only those things we need and forget about everything else. Living in the desert calls us to focus our energies exclusively on finding the minimum resources we need simply to survive.
This quest give us insight not so much what we need, but what we don’t need that we thought we did.
Lent can indeed call us to look at sweets, alcohol, or shopping but I suggest we look deeper. If we look at Lent as our time in the desert, can we explore those things we only think we need? How about our need to be liked? Nobody denies our need for each other, but are there times when we are tempted to do or say something only because we fear that our friends will turn their backs on us?
I imagine all of us are aware of the recent impeachment of the former American President Donald Trump. Members of his own party felt a great deal of pressure to support Mr. Trump and most did. But Adam Kinzinger, a congressman from Illinois, voted to impeach out of his belief that Mr. Trump violated his oath of office. As I write this Mr. Kinzinger’s cousin, along with 10 other family members, wrote to condemn his vote and called on his family to shun him.
However we feel about this issue I respect him for giving up family support for voting his conscience. In other words he has given up support from his family.
What else do we think we need? Do we need social status enough that we ignore those who cannot advance us? Or do we embrace someone whom God loves and none of our friends or coworkers do?
I like to think that we need our moral compass and perhaps Lent can teach us to give up those things that interfere.