Orbiting Dicta

1st Sunday in Lent 2021: A fresh start?

It seems that no matter how many hills we climb, or how dark the night, there’s another one to deal with. We live in challenging times. But this morning my grand-niece just gave birth to a baby boy, and like a rainbow, it is a sign of hope for the world. But now, Lent. Officially.

Ash Wednesday and the three days afterwards were added some time after Lent was first observed to make up forty full days when people worried about whether Sundays really counted as days of fast and abstinence. There is nothing particularly religious in the name, by the way, at least as far as English is concerned. It comes from an old word, Lenten, which simply means “Spring,” probably because the days are now visibly lengthening.

The “forty days” are taken from the gospels of Matthew and Luke in which Jesus fasts and prays and through a series of tests shapes his ministry,

Gen 9:8-15
1 Pet 3:18-22
Mk 1:12-15

essentially by rejecting paths that would have led him away from the cross. Mark simply says that the Holy Spirit drove Jesus out in the desert where he was tested. John’s gospel doesn’t say anything about it at all.

If we do not sing Alleluias during Lent, it’s because they are an Easter chant, but we are urged nevertheless to “lift up our hearts” despite the somber color of the vestments. Halfway through Lent, lest we forget, there comes Laetare Sunday, a “rejoice Sunday” like that in Advent which with its lighter, rose-colored vestments, points ahead to the wonderful mysteries about to unfold. Lent is really about Easter. So in the midst of our conversion from sin, we are to rejoice. But why? About what? Today’s readings give us a pretty good clue.

The first two readings take as their starting point the unlikely figure of Noah. Not as an emblem of penitence, or even as the good and just man who escaped destruction because of his trust in God’s promise that the Epistle of Peter recalls. The reading from Genesis itself looks a little to the side. Interestingly enough, the number forty, which appears so prominently in the ancient account, is not mentioned in today’s readings except in relation to Jesus’ trek in the wilderness.

The focus in the first reading is clearly on what happens after the flood, when God enacts the second great covenant with the human race following that little problem in the garden with Adam and Eve. It’s an even more inclusive covenant this time, one which embraces the whole earth with all its animals and plants. We will do well to recall that. God will renew it time after time, each time, in fact, that human beings break it. And it always gets bigger – more generous, more inclusive.

Here the sign of God’s enduring love for creation is the rainbow, that beautiful remnant of a storm that appears when the sun comes out again. I don’t know of any tradition in which the rainbow is anything other than a symbol of goodness and mercy. To this day, devout Jews say a special prayer of blessing whenever they see a rainbow.

The second reading looks to Noah as a figure of those who are saved by God’s mercy, just as the followers of Jesus are saved by the mystery of baptism into his death and resurrection. The sacraments of initiation, preparation for which begins officially today for those wanting to be baptized, extend the new and gracious covenant that God made with all human beings, in fact with all creation, through the blood of Jesus. That is sure reason to rejoice.

The biblical theme of covenant with Creation has become urgently important in our time, as we see the devastation modern technological and industrial civilization has wrecked upon the world. Animal and plant species are disappearing at the fastest rate in 300 million years, the “sixth great extinction.” It is a perilous time for life on this planet. It has been estimated that about 30,000 animal species become extinct every year — about 3 every hour. Rain forests are disappearing at an alarming rate, and the seas are being poisoned with plastic and chemicals. For years, environmentalists and earth scientists have been clamoring for a new kind of Ark — responsible care for all the earth’s living systems. Like it or not, the fate and welfare of human beings is unbreakably connected with the health of the natural world. Like it or not, the future of life on earth is at stake, just as it was in the story of Noah. Saving Creation is now up to us.

Pope John Paul II was the first pope in recent history to make ecological stewardship an urgent moral imperative. The American bishops beat him to it by a decade, but few people really listened to them and in recent years they have gone strangely quiet. Pope Benedict renewed the call for ecological responsibility. But it was Pope Francis who made planetary stewardship a major priority with his great encyclical, Laudato sí.

In the midst of trying times — the pandemic, the economic chaos that ensued, political havoc, the downtown in weather as a consequence of global climate change–, Lent presents a special opportunity to join Jesus in his wilderness journey among the animals and angels, not only or even especially by fasting and other works of rigorous observance. Today, the new and eternal rainbow covenant calls us to the work of justice, peace, and charity, which is more than self-denial. It turns our heads around. That’s what “repent” means.

Lent provides an opportunity, a gracious gift, for us to accompany Jesus into the desert, to be tested, to see whether in this round of the journey of our lives we may spiral closer to that burning heart of love around which all things move, and in which they live and have their being, including the earth itself with all its animals and plants. So during the next forty days (Sundays included) may the Holy Spirit cast us out into that wilderness to accompany Jesus with an open and willing and especially a joyful heart.