Three symmetries link the readings for the first Sunday of Lent.
The first arises from the similar number of days: forty. The story of Noah (Gen. 9:8-17) comes after forty days of rain. The time Jesus spent in the wilderness after his baptism by John in the Jordan was also forty days: the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness, and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan.(Mark 1: 9-15)
The number forty symbolized a period of change.
In Exodus, the Israelites wandered in the desert for forty years while they became God’s people and God gave them the Law. It represented a time of “becoming” when Noah and his family and animals, when the Israelites, or when Jesus realized that God was transforming them in some fundamental way.
While we look back at the scripture accounts and note that the “final count” was forty, to those who experienced those times the duration was not marked by a specific end point. Rather, it was experienced as an ongoing series of activities and reflection which transformed them.
Our liturgical experience of the forty days of Lent is of a period with a distinct end point on Easter Sunday. Nevertheless the intent is that we will undergo a greater alignment of our lives with God’s intent for us and that the alignment is a continuous process.
The second symmetry comes from the presence of animals in both stories. In the reading from Genesis, which takes place after the flood, God said, I now establish my covenant with you and with your descendants after you and with every living creature that was with you—the birds, the livestock and all the wild animals, all those that came out of the ark with you—every living creature on earth. God’s covenant included the animals.
In the gospel about Jesus’ baptism and the immediate aftermath Mark makes two, almost incidental, comments. As Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” The dove became a symbol of God’s Spirit.
Following that verse, Mark wrote that during the forty days in the desert Jesus was with the wild animals. (1:13) While Mark notes that he was tested (or tempted) by Satan in the same verse, no note of threat appears, instead he seemed to live in harmony with the creatures.
The third symmetry arises from the wilderness setting. The author of Genesis refers to the place where Noah landed as Mount Ararat (Gen 8:4). But, because of the flood which had destroyed all other forms of life, the location would have been a wilderness. When they were on dry land, Noah came out, together with his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives. All the animals and all the creatures that move along the ground and all the birds—everything that moves on land—came out of the ark, one kind after another. Then Noah built an altar to the Lord and, taking some of all the clean animals and clean birds, he sacrificed burnt offerings on it. It was in this place, apart, that Noah rededicated himself, his family and all the creatures to God.
Similarly, Mark says that the (dove) Spirit sent him out into the wilderness. Wilderness was more than a place but also an opportunity to pay attention to God in his natural creation. The wilderness that Noah and Jesus found, far from being places that threatened their lives, was. life-giving in its simplicity. They were places and times of (re)dedication to God.
A question is: what do these symmetries mean.
As we enter Lent, the scriptures invite us to consider our own time of becoming a community of God’s people but also considering our personal response to God’s call. Traditionally, Christians gave up candy or alcohol or meat as a “mortification of the senses”. More recently, the emphasis has been on taking on a new spiritual practice such as prayer, study or specific kinds of good works. Broadly speaking, the intent of both is to transform our lives and to turn our lives more towards God, by the conscious choice for God in our daily lives. (I gave up cream in my coffee in Lent, 1966. On Easter Sunday morning, when I used it again, I couldn’t stand the taste and haven’t used it since. Perhaps. for this Lent, I should add cream to my coffee as my mortification!)
We might consider tying in the symmetries from this morning’s readings, about creatures and our environment. As we know, climate change threatens us with more extreme weather, loss of species, loss of habitat as first order consequences. Second order consequences include increasing numbers of climate migrants, food insecurity, vulnerability to health issues and inequality.
One premise of St. Aidan’s Lenten program is that the whole of creation is God’s communication with us. It was God’s first act of love, predating Noah, the Law of Moses, or Christ. In its diversity of geological and biological forms and complexity it gives us the resources for life. Our respect …or lack of it… for nature reflects our relationship with God. The program will incorporate study, prayer and action, to help us on our journey to heal our relationship with both God and the earth. (Join us Thursday evenings, 7:30-9. The zoom link is https://us02web.zoom.us/j/82228177633?pwd=MGVNeXhqYzRMR3o1MEc3VHRJZUdxUT09)