The Hope of New Life
What’s in a name? In Spanish, the name for the season of Lent is, prosaically enough, derived from the number forty – a period of forty days. In French and modern German the name of the season comes from the word for ‘fasting’ – what you do; Northern Europeans are ever pragmatic. In English, a surprising strain of poetry breaks through – our name for the season being derived from the season of the year, spring. Which last, as it happens, better captures the theological sense of the season, for Lent is a time of hope.
We pick up the story of Noah towards its ending, just after God has repeated, almost verbatim from the opening chapter of Genesis, his blessing on (the new) humanity. The terminology clearly echoes the warning of the imminent flood at the beginning of Noah’s story, but here is transformed into a promise of permanent security ‘for all generations’. The story of the flood is brought to a triumphant and hopeful conclusion, emphasised by the drumbeat of repetition of the partners to the covenant: ‘between myself, and you, and every living creature’… ‘between me and the earth’ … ‘between myself and you and every living creature of every kind’ …
Underlying the history of nature and mankind is an unconditional divine ‘Yes’ to all life, that cannot be shattered either by any historical catastrophe or by the mistakes, rebellion or corruption of man. God’s promise, God’s blessing is certain. Unlike most other episodes in the story of man’s beginnings in Genesis, the story of Noah echoes into later writings in the prophets. Ezekiel puts Noah on a par with Job and Daniel as men famed for personal righteousness, who for all that, cannot prevent judgement falling on others. Isaiah, alternately, focuses on God’s promise never to destroy the earth again as a foreshadowing of his enduring love for Israel: ‘though mountains may fall and hills be brought low, my steadfast love will never depart from you.’ As our second reading shows, Noah is seen as an example of faith and a hero of righteousness; and Jesus himself compares his second coming to the coming of the flood; it too, will take most by surprise and only some will be saved.
This message of hope, then, carries a warning, too. God’s blessing, mercy and love are constant and certain but we have to open ourselves to receive these gifts. We are not forced to receive salvation – that is our dignity, our being made in God’s image; and also our danger, lest we become like those spirits who refuse to believe and imprison themselves in their own despair. How do we receive salvation, accept God’s blessing? The Gospel suggests that we do so by patterning ourselves on Jesus, the new Adam, the obedient Son – of man and of God – now raised to God’s right hand. Unlike the more elaborate accounts of Jesus’s temptation we find in Matthew and Luke, Mark’s brief account seems focused more on a motif of Paradise, of creation made new and restored than the Exodus/testing motifs favoured by the other evangelists.
The Spirit takes Jesus into the wilderness, not directly into temptation. The wilderness is the place of John’s appearance, the place where the message of conversion is preached, the place of God’s coming deliverance. Jesus is in the wilderness for a period of time under the control of the Spirit and sustained by God’s providence (‘angels looked after him’). That Jesus lives peacefully with the wild beasts looks back to a relationship found in the original creation story and is seen, especially by Isaiah, as pointing towards the harmony of the creation being made anew.
If we, too, would become part of the new age of salvation prefigured in Jesus we must, like him, resist Satan, resist these destructive tendencies and appetites that obstruct or choke off our new life in the Spirit. That is the urgency of Jesus’s proclamation: the Kingdom of God has come, Jesus has come into our history, effecting God’s rule. Jesus preaches the Gospel of God’s coming, and himself becomes part of the message he is preaching. If we too would become part of that, we must hear his words and do them, follow the example he gives us, try to live better lives of prayer, charity and self-control as he has shown us, that the shoots of his Spirit given to us may blossom and bear fruit in holiness, as we grow towards the God who comes to meet us.