Friday, May 29, 2009

3-1-2009: 1st Lent (B)

Genesis 9:8-15/Psalm 25/1 Peter 3:18-22 /Mark 1:12-15
Taking stock may be just the right sound bite for the Lenten experience. It’s also an appropriate handle for the story of Noah, the Flood, and his legendary Ark – that inventory of creation being saved on the external hard drive before the computer crashed.

Lent is often billed as a chance to start anew: sins washed away, bad habits cast off and a new, virtuous life embraced. But I doubt it. Total conversions, like most diets, seldom last for long; just like the Ark, we carry our past with us. Genesis bears this out. Not long after the Ark found dry land and God put that beautiful rainbow in the sky, Noah gets drunk and his son, Ham, in an intriguing insinuation does something really nasty to his dad (exactly what, biblical scholars have long debated). The point being, of course, that even the threat of total destruction couldn’t guarantee a total turn-around from sin, selfishness and our baser instincts.

In today’s gospel St. Mark, in his terse literary manner, tells us Jesus remained in the desert for forty days, tempted by Satan. Then he adds what at first seems to be an unnecessary fact: He was among wild beasts… But, perhaps, this is the whole point of the story. We human beings are part of the animal kingdom; our passions, our desires and drives, are all based in that animal nature. Philosophers and theologians have long taught that the struggle of life has a lot to do with overcoming those baser passions - subduing the beast within, so to speak. Most of us tend to do that by trying to kill the beast, starving it to death, or just trying to ignore it altogether. Today’s readings remind us that just the opposite strategy may be called for: we, like Jesus, must face those wild beasts and, to some extent, become comfortable with them. Noah, on orders from God, had to live with those beasts for forty days and nights. With literally nowhere to go, Noah had to accommodate, tolerate, befriend them.

Our Lenten journey of forty days and nights is meant to help us take stock of those myriad beasts that inhabit our particular ark. Success doesn’t lie in evicting whatever beast might be causing havoc with our lives but, rather, in directing our passions toward love and service of others. Lent is a journey of self-discovery. What we find may be a shock at first: the truth that we are not angels - nor meant to be; but human beings whose passions, when ordered toward a good greater than our own self interest, ennoble us. This potential for nobility – the grace of Lent - is born in us human beings because of our animal nature, not despite it.

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