A friend of mine once told me that the best way to deal with temptation is to give in. I’ve never been convinced that his strategy was an effective one. In today’s Gospel reading Jesus faced temptation in the desert, but he enjoyed the unique blessing of the help of angels. (Mark 1:13) I would never question the possibility of God’s providence being exercised through the work of Angels, but neither am I willing to treat it presumptuously. Rather than assume angelic help with our personal temptations we should probably look elsewhere.
A few months ago I read a news article about some recent research done on avoiding temptation. The researchers subjected college students to a series of tests designed to distinguish between those who were good as avoiding distraction and those who were not so good at it. The students who were successful at avoiding distraction, and therefore more likely to succeed in college, were the ones who avoided situations that might undermine their self-control.
The researchers were quick to point out that they had no data to suggest a correlation between avoiding environmental distractions and avoiding moral failings, but their research results seem to be commonsensical. If one wishes to avoid immoral behavior, an obvious strategy is to avoid the people, places and circumstances that might facilitate that behavior.
There is an obvious corollary here for our observance of Lent. If you have given up sweets for Lent, candy stores and bakeries are not your friends, at least for the next six weeks. If you’ve decided to give more time to prayer during Lent, the tv remote and cellphone should probably be locked away somewhere unreachable. These, and similar, choices are appropriate moral strategies, but morality does not lead to salvation.
Noah and his family were chosen by God to be saved from the Great Flood because of their righteousness. In the Scriptures, “righteousness” refers to faith in God. Noah and his family did not fall into the moral failures that afflicted their contemporaries, but it was their faith that saved them from the Flood. They trusted that God would deliver them from destruction.
In today’s first reading God addressed their faith when He said, “I set my bow in the clouds to serve as a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth, and the bow appears in the clouds, I will remember my covenant between me and you and every living being so that the waters will never again become a flood to destroy every mortal being.” (Genesis 9:13-15) God gave Noah and his descendents the assurance that the next rainfall would not be like the rainfall that created the Flood. The next rainfall would be benign and life-giving because God would remember the Covenant between God and creation. (Genesis 9:16)
Our Lenten penance, prayer and almsgiving will have no lasting effects if they are done solely for the purpose of creating moral uprightness. Noah and his family survived the Flood because they believed that God would be true to God’s promises. God’s mercy and forgiveness are received by those who are faithful. Therefore, growth in faith is the only appropriate goal for our Lenten observances.
The research that I mentioned above has something to contribute to our practice of Lent as a season for growth in faith. The researchers found that those who chose to avoid over-taxing their capacity for self-control were more likely to succeed at accomplishing academic tasks. If avoiding risk-filled situations is an effective means of overcoming temptation, perhaps choosing situations that are supportive would be an effective means to grow in virtue. If this is true, and I have every reason to believe so, then choosing to be in the presence of faithful believers will have a positive effect on one’s personal faith in God.
Spending one’s time in the company of fellow believers would certainly be an effective help toward meeting the demands of a Lenten penance. You are not likely to cheat on your penance if others are watching. However, the real value of keeping company with fellow believers is much more significant than fasting temporarily from a favorite food or activity. An environment filled with faithful people provides help, encouragement, good example and the opportunity to be a good example for others.
Jesus had the company of angels in the desert. We should take a clue from Jesus’ example. The company of fellow servants of God can afford us the same strength and comfort that Jesus found during his time of trial. One of the complaints that Catholics routinely direct at their parishes is that there is a lack of close social connections between parishioners. That lack comes from only one place: parishioners who give in to the temptation not to make those connections. There is an old saying, “There’s strength in numbers.” I think we could paraphrase that saying to: “There is faith in numbers.” Try this for your observance of Lent this year: seek out the company of your fellow believers. You are certain to find that a closer relationship to God’s People will create a closer relationship to God.
A note on the Scriptures
The first eleven chapters of the book of Genesis are a type of literature called “religious myth.” The term isn’t used often because of the suspect nature of the notion of myth. The discomfort we feel with the word “myth” in the context of religion is a result of a cultural prejudice called logical positivism. Logical positivism claims that nothing can be true unless it is verifiable by scientific observation, but there is a significant problem with that claim.
Prior to the Twentieth Century, science was a rather simple affair. Scientists and researchers assumed that their observations would necessarily produce accurate data about the physical universe. This assumption was so ingrained in science that the challenges posed to it by quantum theory continued to be rejected by some even after their objections were accepted universally as invalid.
The overly simplistic view of logical positivism is no longer given validity by the scientific community, but it still holds sway on the minds of many outside the scientific field. Rather than considering religion or myth as inadequate, the western cultural prejudices that are blind to the value of myth should be considered inadequate. Due to our intellectual prejudices, however, most of us would never consider viewing the world in any way other than the way we do.
For the modern mind, it might be helpful to understand the material in the first eleven chapters of Genesis as being like the parables told by Jesus. Jesus spoke often about sheep, shepherds, wheat, figs, tenant farmers, fish and the merchant trade. At no point did Jesus intend to teach his disciples about farming, animal husbandry, fishing or commerce. Rather, Jesus used examples from common human experience to teach his disciples about the Reign of God.
Jesus’ use of metaphors (parables), does not invalidate the truth claims of his teaching. In just the same way, Genesis’ use of metaphor (religious myth), does not invalidate the truth claims in the book. It does remain necessary, however, to understand the nature of the truth claims made by the book of Genesis. To read Jesus’ teaching as instruction about farming or commerce is to misunderstand Jesus’ teaching. In just the same way, to read Genesis as instruction about science or history is to miss the point. Jesus taught about holiness of life, but he was not the first to do so. Genesis, also, taught about holiness of life.
Today’s first reading, taken from the Noah stories in Genesis, is one of those teachings about holiness of life. To read this story as history, science, archaeology or cosmology will be, necessarily, to misunderstand the message. Let’s take a brief look at how seriously and tragically this story can be misunderstood.
Our reading begins after the waters of the Great Flood have receded. In thanksgiving for deliverance from destruction, Noah and his family gave worship to God. It appears that God had repented, at least a little, from His previous destructive anger. Having preserved Noah’s family from destruction, God restarted creation by offering a covenant of mercy to Noah and his descendents. (Gen 9:8) The rainbow made famous in this covenant story is as much a reminder for God as for Noah. Our reading concludes with a statement from God, “I will remember my covenant between me and you and every living being so that the waters will never again become a flood to destroy every mortal being.” (Gen 9:15)
If this story is an accurate account of God’s anger over human sinfulness, God’s subsequent destruction of all life except a few humans and animals, and God’s later repentance from the previous anger, it paints a very confusing portrait of God. If the Noah stories are to be understood literally, God appears to be emotionally unstable and basically untrustworthy. This is about as dissimilar from the biblical promise of God’s fidelity as one can imagine.
The story, of course, is not to be understood literally. Rather than read this story as world history, let’s read it from the point of view of Israel’s religious history. The story bears a remarkable similarity (albeit metaphorical), to Israel’s Exodus from Egypt, and much later, their return from the Babylonian Exile.
When the Israelites left Egypt they passed through the waters of the Red Sea. For them, the waters of the sea were saving, but for Pharaoh’s army, the sea was death. The Israelites wandered many years in the wasteland, but had the constant companionship of God’s Presence in the Ark of the Covenant. Finally, the People of God reached the Land of Promise where they established authentic worship and a society built on faithfulness to the Sinai Covenant. The Shrine at Shiloh, and later, the Temple in Jerusalem became visible signs of the promises that bound God’s People to the Lord.
Centuries later, when the Babylonian Empire conquered Assyria the remaining residents of Israel and Judah were carried off as captives. The Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, and Hebrew worship ceased. The world of the Israelites was truly destroyed by the unstoppable flood of the Babylonian army; their religion was almost entirely washed away from the face of the earth.
A few faithful souls endured the hardships of the Exile. That remnant of Israel’s former glory carried the burden of preserving true faith in God. After the passage of nearly two generations, and the fall of Babylon, Judah was repopulated. The remnant who had remained faithful to God began to rebuild Jerusalem and reestablish authentic worship of God. They found themselves having to rebuild their nation from nothing, but with the promise of a renewed faithfulness to the Covenant. As a parable about faithfulness to God, the Noah stories both make sense and offer hope.
If the Bible intends to teach history or science, we have to give it failing marks. On the other hand, if the Bible intends to teach faith in God and fidelity to the Covenant, we have to grade ourselves on how well we measure up.
None of us want to think about the destructive consequences of our sins. Everyone, everywhere, prefers to blame our personal trouble on others. The Ukraine blames Russia; Russia blames the West. Greece blames Germany; the EU blames the Greek socialist bureaucracy. The Southern Hemisphere blames the North. Many countries blame the United States; on its short list, the U.S. blames immigrants, conservatives, liberals, the media, the wealthy, the poor, government, citizens, criminals, welfare recipients, tax evaders and foreign powers. Personal responsibility has been washed away in a flood of blame.
Sometimes, I wonder what the world would be like if each person was quick to accept responsibility for their actions, both good and bad. What kind of world would it be if we took regular looks behind us to see what we leave in our wake? I imagine that the world would be a very different place. Sadly, we don’t live in that world; we live in the world where we carry on blithely leaving a path behind us of broken promises, broken hearts and, sometimes, broken lives.
The Noah story is a parable about each of us, and all of us together. We are the waters of the flood; we are destruction. Happily, sometimes, we are also the faithful remnant which emerges from the ark to bring authentic worship back to the earth. The book of Genesis does not intend to teach us about events in the past. As significant as past events might be, the focus of faith is always the present. The book of Genesis intends to teach us about ourselves, our lack of faith and the possibility of repentance.
In the Middle Ages baptismal fonts were often constructed in the shape of Noah’s Ark, and adorned with images depicting Noah’s family and the animals saved from the Flood. Today, most people would find this cute, childish art appropriate for the baptism of infants. It is, however, a profound statement about faith.
In the Noah myth the waters of the Flood were both destructive and life-giving; they destroyed evil, and by doing so, gave new life to faithfulness. The waters of Baptism have this same miraculous effect. Baptism “is not a removal of dirt from the body but an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” (1 Peter 3:21) The waters of Baptism wash away sin, and make a new beginning to holiness.
When sin dies, and faith is born in the Baptismal waters, there are no visible results that can be measured or observed. These are actions that take place in the realm of spirituality and relationship, precisely the places that are best described by myth, metaphor and analogy. The Scripture readings throughout Lent invite the Baptized and the Elect to enter more deeply into repentance as an appropriate preparation for the celebration of the Easter Sacraments.
Entering fully into repentance requires that we take a very honest look at the chaos and destructiveness that is sin in our lives, and then turn to God for forgiveness. On Easter, when we profess the vows of Baptism, we see how the fallen human condition that can lead to the death of sin can also lead to new life. The Second Person of the Trinity took on a human existence, and died a human death, in order to free all humanity from the death of sin.
In Jesus, human nature ceased to be a raging, destructive flood, and was transformed into the path to salvation. The myth of Noah and the Flood invites us to enter into the transformation of human nature that is made possible by Baptism into the death of Jesus. That transformation begins with our accepting responsibility for our sins, and repenting of them.