The story of Noah and his ark is one of the best known from the Old Testament, but few people really recognise what the story is getting at. The person who created the story wasn’t writing history, but trying to make a number of important points about us humans, and our relationship both with God, and with the natural world of animals, plants and birds. The first point is the most shocking. The most dangerous animal on our planet – the one that kills and pollutes and destroys – is us’ us humans. And, strictly speaking, if God was being fair, God would simply destroy us all and start again.
But God also knows our potential for goodness and self-sacrificial love, and that is why he carries on loving us. The way that’s expressed in the story of Noah is the bit of the story we had as our 1st Reading, (Genesis 9:8-15) where God makes a Covenant with us – in other words a promise to us – affirming his love and his mercy despite our many failings. The bow that we hear of is of course, the rainbow – a natural sign that in the midst of the rain the light will shine – that in the midst of the darkness of our troubles and our failings, God’s love is still at work.
The writer then makes another important point. For God doesn’t just make a covenant with us, but with the whole of the natural world. Listen again to what God says! “I establish my Covenant with you” – yes we expected that, but then he adds “Also with every living creature to be found with you, birds, cattle and every wild beast with you ………. everything that lives on the earth.” This part of the promise is affirmed in rather a strange way by our Gospel today. (Mark 1:12-15) It’s easy not to notice it, but unlike the other stories of Jesus in the wilderness, Mark’s story says that Jesus was “with the wild beasts.” So this very special time for Jesus, when he was extra close to God the Father, working out in prayer what this new and final phase of his life should be like, is one in which he is also extra close to the natural world.
We all know that Lent is meant to be a time when we all try to pray more as we prepare for Easter, that in some way we are meant in these 40 days to imitate the 40 days that Jesus spent in prayer. How lovely to discover from the Gospel today that we might do some of this prayer, not in church, nor inside our homes, but in the midst of the natural world. Dark cold February here in the UK will soon turn to brighter March, and we can already see the signs of Spring, as the first flowers open and the birds get more active and their songs grow stronger. One of my favourite places to pray is in my Conservatory where I can see and hear all this as I look out into my garden. Or we can do the same if we go for a walk outside, and maybe as we walk we could quietly praise God for the beauty around us, or even like me sing quietly:- “Morning has broken like the first morning Blackbird has spoken like the first bird
Praise for the singing Praise for the morning
Praise for them springing fresh from the word.”
However….. note the pause…. I have known people get muddled about this, and say that they find it so much easier to find God as they look at the sky or the birds or the trees, that they do not need to come to Mass. The answer to this is so obvious. The more we appreciate the beauty of the world God has given us, despite our tendency to mess it up, the more we need to thank God for this and for all his other mercies; and we need to do that as a family of love and peace, not just alone doing our own thing. That’s why Jesus gives us the Mass, a place, a happening, where once a week we can gather together to offer back to God all the beauty, and all the love, and all the glory he has given us. Our response is pretty feeble, given the immense beauty of the world, but God has promised that when we offer ourselves to him in this way, as we listen to his Word, and as we meet him in the Blessed Sacrament, he fills this with his presence, and his glory.
This time together may not be as outwardly beautiful as the rainbow that we can see in the sky, or the grass and the trees as they grow greener and fresher day by day, but nonetheless God has promised that he will be present for us in an even more powerful way than he is present in the world’s beauty. Jesus said “This is my Body.. this is my Blood… Do this in memory of me”, and he meant it. He meant us to bring all our prayers and thought and worries and hopes and joys from our own life, so that we can offer them all to him together, and together discover in an even more wonderful way that he is always with us – “to the end of time”.