Readings: Genesis 9:8-15; I Peter 3:18-22; Mark 1: 12-15
The Liturgy has a way of surprising us. It will throw us a delightful curve when we are least expecting it. Here we are, all ready for the beginning of the Lenten Season, having gotten our ashes last Wednesday. We are now resolved to make heartfelt sacrifices to the Lord, that when we come to the end of these forty days, we may feel renewed in spirit and experience a truly blessed Easter celebration together.
We are all familiar with the major theme of the First Sunday of Lent, the temptation of Jesus by the devil in the wilderness, where he fasted and prayed for forty days to prepare himself for his public ministry. But what pleasant surprise do we happen to find today in the First Reading from the Book of Genesis? A Rainbow in the sky. In the Bible story of the flood that covered the earth, the rainbow is what God chose as the sign of the covenant that the Lord God made with Noah, when he promised Noah that he would never again destroy the world by flood waters. Who is there who can look up and see a rainbow appear in the sky without a sense of wonder at nature’s beauty?
When I was a kid, if I chanced to find a rainbow in the sky, I remember being told I would find a pot of gold at the end of it. Nobody said anything to me about Noah and the waters that flooded the earth. I grew up Catholic, so what did we know about Bible stories? We memorized the Baltimore catechism. I never heard anything in church about rainbows.
But when I went to school, I learned in physics about refraction of light, how light is made up of seven colors according to their wave lengths: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet. I found that extremely fascinating. Physics became one of my favorite subjects.
So after I joined the monastery and started to read the Bible seriously, the whole Bible from one end to the other, there were a lot of revelations in store for me. One of my discoveries then was learning God’s gift of the rainbow to us, as the sign of his promise that he would never again destroy the earth by flood waters. Not what I might expect to hear on the First Sunday of Lent! Although it does say in the account of the flood that for forty days and forty nights heavy rain poured down on the earth…The flood continued upon the earth for forty days. That’s one connection to Lent: forty days.
What I would like to do is propose that we could view the Lenten season in the light of the revelation of God’s rainbow to the earth. Clearly the rainbow in the book of Genesis is meant to stand as a symbol of hope for mankind, as our trust in God’s fidelity to his promise. And even more, a sign of God’s lasting love for his creation, which he wishes never again to punish in the way he once did.
Through the centuries of the Bible’s composition, as the Chosen People came more and more to understand their God, they grew in consciousness of God’s infinite mercy and love for his people. Hosea expressed that love most movingly, Isaiah is unsurpassed in his deep eloquence of God’s forgiving patience. When, in the fullness of time, God himself came and entered our lives, Jesus showed us in living flesh the infinite love of God for us.
The symbol of Christianity is the cross on which Jesus expressed the extent of his love. No greater love has anyone… Equally is the symbol of the empty tomb: the eternal life that we are to share with him. The two are inseparable. But today’s Mass suggests that we do well to reflect this Lent on the Biblical sign of hope. The sign of the hope which God asks us to place in him, in his promise of fidelity to us, his children.
Our world needs hope as perhaps never before. Pope Francis has remarked that the armed conflicts emerging all across the world are nothing short of the beginning of the Third World War. A bleak and terrifying thought. But it need not be. To thwart the self-destructive machinations of man will take a mighty commitment of prayer and of spiritual sacrifice, to win that peace which the world cannot give. God’s thoughts are thoughts of peace, not war. He desires not the death of the sinner but that he be converted and live. The rainbow in the sky is God’s sign of peace, the sign of God’s fidelity to his promise. The sign of hope in an anguished world.
May our Lenten observance now serve to be a small but necessary means of bringing God’s saving grace to our suffering world. A sure sign of hope.