Lent and the Ancient Flood

noah-covenant

Seems like history repeats itself. Almost the same gospel reading as at Sunday Mass four weeks ago. This time, to begin Lent, let’s focus on the first part of the reading.

The Spirit drove him out into the desert, and he remained in the desert for forty days, tempted by Satan. He was among wild beasts, and the angels ministered to him. (Mark 1:12-13)

The Lord Jesus fasted for forty days, sequestered from the world, totally isolated in the desert. In His solitude, He entered into spiritual combat with the Enemy of our human nature, the corruptor of creation.

Our first reading this Sunday reminds us about the covenant between God and Noah after the ancient flood. As we read in Genesis, when God Almighty had decided to flood the earth completely, He did so with divine sadness. He had made the world to be beautiful. But Satan had befouled the earth with so much sin and degradation that only a fresh start could get things back on-track.

The flood didn’t mean the obliteration of the earth. The same human race that God had created originally—and the same laws of nature, same animals, etc.–all would survive, and provide a new beginning, after the flood. But only one ark-full. One isolated, solitary ark, on the surface of an endless sea. Everything else had to be washed clean altogether.

noe's arkNow, we Catholics love the world. We do not despise anything that God has made. We know that He made everything to thrive, to course with vigor, to flourish.

God made the cosmos—gave it a beginning. But not an end. He made the world to endure forever, as an eternal temple of His light. He even made the devil good, beautiful, powerful, vastly intelligent. God willed that Lucifer would endure forever as a vessel of divine glory.

Lucifer, however, willed otherwise. The Enemy wills destruction. And he wills the degradation of the world with such skill and such dexterity that the world, which we love, which belongs to eternity—this world, at one point, justly got submerged under an endless sea. God covered the earth with enough water to drown everyone and everything that didn’t make it onto the ark. Not because God wills destruction. But because Satan wills destruction so well. All his destruction had to be destroyed, so that life could thrive again.

I said we would focus on the first part of the gospel reading, instead of the second part, which we just read four weeks ago. But we have to consider the second part of the reading a little bit. We cannot just skip over the most decisively important reality of life, namely the Kingdom of God is at hand (Mark 1:15).

To begin Lent, we have to ask the question: Where do we find the Kingdom of God? In this world, or in another world? Here, or somewhere else?

Yes.

The Lord Jesus went out into the ark of His total solitude for 40 days. He turned His back on the world, as if it were covered with an endless sea of water. Not because He hates the world that He made, but precisely because He loves it the way He does. He loves it enough not only to lay its foundations, but also to redeem it and make it new, even after the Enemy had laid waste to it.

champagneWe Catholics follow Christ into the ark of Lenten solitude, into the ark of self-denial. We turn our backs on things like ice-cream and champagne. We get into the ark of Lenten separation from the normal comforts of this earth.

The ark doesn’t have wifi or cable. The berths on the ark do not have featherbeds. But our Lenten observances do not involve self-loathing, nor world-hating. We get onto the ark of Lent for our own version of Christ’s divine reason for fasting during the original Lent.

We don’t hate ice-cream or champagne. At least I don’t. We don’t hate the world. We don’t hate ourselves.

But the fact of the matter is: The Enemy has enough power to just about ruin the world. He has enough power to just about ruin us. And He’s clever enough to ruin us with things so apparently innocuous as tvs, phones, ice-cream cones—even apparently harmless snacks, like donuts.

We do not undertake our Lenten penances with glee. God did not gleefully flood the earth in the days of Noah. God wouldn’t have flooded the earth at all, except He knew that, after forty days and forty nights of endless rain, He would set the rainbow in the clouds again. Everything would start fresh and happy, with all the creatures from the ark standing on the fertile ground. Birds singing and flowers starting to grow, like they had back in the Garden of Eden.

We undertake our Lenten penances because we love ourselves enough to hate how weak we can be. We love the world enough to hate how it can lead us to make big mistakes in it.

The world needs a big wash-down. We need a big wash-down.

The world will never grow into the Kingdom of God, unless we love it enough to turn our backs on it for 40 days. And we ourselves won’t make it to the divine Kingdom that this world will one day be, unless we deny ourselves and take up our crosses during Lent. With the same kind of loving courage that led the Lord Jesus Himself out into the desert.

Bad at Lent

One great thing for us to keep in mind: Lent contains graces, in and of itself, simply by virtue of what it is. Lent can mean many different things for many different people. But the one thing which Lent is, in and of itself: Our share in the graces won by Christ’s forty-day fast in the desert.

christ-fastingThis consoles me, anyway. Since I have never been particularly “good at” Lent.

You might say, ‘No surprise there, Father! You’re not particularly good at anything.”

True enough.

But that’s the beauty of the absolute fact of the grace of the forty days. We receive special divine help during the forty days of Lent, whether we have any “Lent skills” or not.

My biggest problem is: I am prepared to fast from food, sleep, talking, even e-mail. But don’t ask me to fast from Big-East basketball during Lent. Because I can’t do it.

Seriously, though: The Lord Jesus Himself consecrated these forty days for us by His fast. He won us Lenten graces by which we can overcome bad habits. He won us Lenten graces by which we can pray more, meditate more, intercede more for people who need our prayers.

Most important of all: By His fast—which He undertook for one reason, namely because He loved the Father—by His fast, kept out of love, Jesus won Lenten graces for us, by which, between now and Easter, we can learn to love better. We can love God better and love our neighbor better.

And we don’t even have to be “good at” Lent. He gives us these graces whether we are good at Lent or not.

Two Temptations

Today the Church commemorates two occasions when the devil came to tempt somebody.

In the first, Satan came to tempt two people, Adam and Eve.

Adam and Eve lived in the garden of Eden. They had everything they could ever have wanted without having to work for it. They never got sick. They were destined to live forever and go to heaven without dying. Perhaps most unimaginable for us, Adam and Eve were married to each other, and yet there was nothing that would cause them to have any difficulties in getting along: no bad habits, neither of them were messy, or crabby, or lazy.

In the second instance, the devil came to tempt the Lord Jesus. The situation was completely different. The Lord was not in a garden; He was in the desert. He did not have everything He wanted to eat and drink; He had nothing to eat and drink. The Lord Jesus was not in a state of leisure and ease. Rather, He was desperately hungry, struggling physically in every way, because He had been fasting for forty days. And our Lord did not have a human companion. He was completely alone.

The devil came into both of these two very different situations in order to lure his victims into disobedience.

In the garden of Eden, God had expressed His will very clearly. He told Adam and Eve: Do not eat from this particular tree. There were countless other trees, heavy with delicious fruit. Just don’t eat from this one. The devil came to trick them into eating it from it anyway.

When Adam and Eve succumbed to temptation, it was not a matter of human weakness. Before the Fall, human nature was not weak. When they sinned, it was not because their weak flesh faltered. They just willfully disobeyed.

What happened? How did Satan pull it off? The devil suggested to Adam and Eve that God is not to be trusted. God had demanded obedience to one simple law. The Devil put the idea into our First Parents’ minds that this was an infringement on their proper rights. God was making them His slaves. Previously they thought that they had everything. The Devil then tricked them into thinking that they would not have everything until they had total independence and got out from under the law of God.

Christ also lived under a law. The Father had not openly spoken a law to His incarnate Son. But in the depths of His human mind, Christ knew the will of the Father. We know this because Christ had said early on: “The Son of man must be rejected, and suffer, and die, and on the third day rise again.”

In the desert, the Lord Jesus was hungry and He was lonely, but the devil did not temp Him to gluttony or vanity. If Jesus had eaten some bread, it would not have been gluttony. If He had gone to Jerusalem and let Himself be admired and served by everyone there, that would not have been vanity: He is the King of kings and Lord of lords Whom everyone is bound to admire and serve.

Perhaps the difference between the two episodes of temptation—the garden and the desert; our First Parents and Christ—the difference lies in understanding what obedience to God is. Adam and Eve had everything, but they let themselves be deceived into thinking that they didn’t have everything since they had to obey God. On the other hand, the Lord Jesus had nothing—nothing except what He called “the food that sustains me:” namely, doing the will of the Father. The Lord Jesus knew that if He had this food of obedience, He in fact had everything. He didn’t need anything else at all—not food, not glory, not even His bodily life.

Satan is very intelligent and very wily, but Christ turned the tables on him. Long ago the devil had reduced the human race to slavery, so he naturally thought that he had come to tempt one of his slaves. But in fact, the devil came to tempt the new, incorruptible Adam, who was filled with the infinite strength of the Holy Spirit. Satan did not find a slave in the desert. He found the omnipotent One Who is absolutely free.

This is the special grace of Lent: Christ gives us a share in His immeasurable strength and His perfect freedom. He beckons us out for forty days in the desert with Him. In the desert, He teaches us the joy of His obedience.

Scripture sings of the sequel to these days of training:

Who is coming up from the wilderness, leaning upon her beloved?
Under the apple tree I awakened you.
There your mother was in travail with you.
There she who bore you was in travail.
(Song of Solomon 8:5)

Christ’s Holy Cross takes us back to the Garden of Eden. Beneath the Tree of Life, where our human nature fell into weakness and suffering because of disobedience, we find our obedient Beloved. We can lean on Him forever.

The Food of Truth

Just as man needs bread, so does man have even more need of God. (Pope Benedict XVI, Message for Lent)

Tomorrow we begin our little forty-day journey to Easter.

Lent is our chance to re-initiate ourselves as Christians.

We started off well, when we emerged from the baptismal font. But time takes a toll. We get distracted. We get lazy. We do things shabbily. We do not pray like we should.

We can do better. For forty days, the Church feeds us with the pure bread of the Word of God. The food we need is set before us in church.

Our Mother the Church, who is full of solicitude for her children, knows to what perils they are ever exposed; she knows, on the other hand, what powerful graces of life are given to us through the mysteries of the Incarnate Word…and so she recalls to us each year, at the beginning of Lent, the mystery of the Temptation of Jesus.

She wills that during forty days, we should live like Him in the spirit of penance, retreat, solitude, and prayer. (Bl. Columba Marmion)

…On Ash Wednesday we fast and eat no meat. On Fridays during Lent we eat no meat…

…Many of us are members of families of mixed religion. We can look forward to interactions like the one depicted in the first minute of this clip, when the MacDougals were visiting the Barones for Easter: