Ord Om ordet

1. søndag i fasten B

Prekenen var del av en retrett for seminaristene i Det nordamerikanske kollegiet i Roma. 

Genesis 9.8-15: There shall be no flood to destroy the earth again.
1 Peter 3.18-22: That water is a type of the baptism which saves you now. 
Mark 1.12-15: The Spirit drove Jesus out into the wilderness.

We have heard the account of God’s first covenant with man. After the flood God spoke to Noah: ‘I establish my covenant with you and your descendants; also with every living creature.’ The covenant held a promise: ‘No thing of flesh shall be swept away again by the waters of the flood.’

To appreciate the full import of this promise, we must cast our mind back and recall how the flood came about in the tenth generation of human life on earth.

Man’s story, begun in a garden of bliss, was played out then on a battlefield. Lamech, Noah’s father, uttered the words, ‘If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold’ (4.23), an outline of the spiral of violence that to this day marks our world, filling us with anguish. To Lamech, earth was a hopeless place of mere toil. He called it ‘the ground which the Lord has cursed’ (5.29). When man has no hope, he seeks such distraction as he can, then as now. Having turned his face away from God, the source of reality and truth, he started living on fantasy instead, and ‘every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was evil continually’ (6.5).

When God saw that man was set on self-destruction, cut off from joy, he felt piercing regret. Genesis describes this divine affliction pithily, pathetically:

It repented the Lord that he had made man on earth; it grieved him in his heart [וַיִּתְעַצֵּב אֶל-לִבּוֹ]; and he said: ‘I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the earth’ (6.6-7).

The flood sprung from God’s grieving heart was to put an end to human grief, to enable a fresh beginning. That is why St Peter could see the flood as a type of baptism. The covenant made with Noah declared that no further earthly renewal through punitive divine intervention would ever occur. God would not again, until the end of time, interrupt history. Instead he would let it run its course, accompanying it, blessing the good, sanctioning evil, enduring it, consenting to let his compassionate heart be pierced by grief when man inflicts it. 

The rainbow God set as the sign of his covenant, a sign no lesser cause can usurp, indicates an economy of mercy, for God will henceforth leave the world undestroyed. It also indicates an economy of patience, for in a post-diluvian world man must bear the brunt of his choices. The rainbow speaks of God’s paternal trust in us. As any parent knows, trust has sometimes to be reckless. The rainbow speaks: ‘Children, you are now in possession of the house built for you. It is in your power to make it into a gracious home or into a fearful prison, even to burn it down. But it is yours. I will treat you as children no longer.’

The rainbow tells us that we’ve come of age. We cannot shirk responsibility. The rainbow marks the transition from the time of creation to the time of measurable history in which you and I, too, are actors.

By telling us today the story of the covenant with Noah, the Church calls us to account. By telling us, next, the story of Christ’s sojourn in the desert, she asks us to prepare for testing, or, to use a more biblical term, for temptation. For as we exercise the freedom God entrusts us with, the ancient Accuser haunts us inwardly and outwardly, trying by all manner of magnetic ploys to draw us away from a trajectory of flourishing. We are engaged, as the martial collect for Ash Wednesday reminds us, in warfare, in ‘battle against spiritual evils’. We need ‘weapons of self-restraint’ to curb the  ‘imagination of the thoughts of our heart’. We are to fortify ourselves with fasting, vigils, penance. 

During Lent we redress compromise and re-establish an ordered norm for our lives. Lent is austere. But it is also sweet. It reaffirms the possibility of hope. It reminds us that our battle unfolds within a context of grace. The Church alerts us to this by letting today’s Mass be suffused with one of the loveliest texts of Scripture: Psalm 90, our Compline Psalm, that confident lullaby. The tempter in the wilderness tried to subvert the Psalm’s promise, making of it an occasion for presumption (Matthew 4.6, cf. Psalm 90.11), but Christ serenely brought out its authentic message, brushing away the tempter as if he were but an annoying fly.

The Gradual uses Psalm 90 as the text for the Introit, Offertory and Communion antiphons this Sunday. Almost the whole Psalm is set as a Tract before the Gospel. It goes on and on, a liturgical extravagance worth keeping! The Fathers found in this Psalm the key to Lent. Saint Bernard composed a whole suite of sermons to explain why this is so. The Qui habitat sets the tone for these forty days and for our Christian existence, which Lent represents. It is like a cantus firmus ordering every other rhythm and tone.

We are caught up in struggle, yes, but the victory is won. The rainbow is no longer an implacable dome under which the drama of history plays out unto the end. The Paschal victory of God incarnate has made of the rainbow a royal seat on which Christ, history’s Lord, is enthroned, casting a sheen of eternity on the here and now, giving us a foretaste of consolation, even glory, in battle, making the weak strong.

May we, in him, be courageous, then, and true. May we persevere in the pursuit of good, in the casting-off of darkness. If only we let ourselves be helped, God will free us from the snare, conceal us with his pinions, dispel the terror of the night, content us with life, and let us see his saving power (cf. Psalm 90.3-5, 16). Amen.  

Christ enthroned on the rainbow, a fifth-century mosaic from the church of Hosios David in Thessaloniki, an image for our times.