The First Sunday in Lent, 18 February 2018

February 18, 2018 | by Robert McDonald

Reading 1 Reading 2 Reading 3 Reading 4 Reading 1 Alt Reading 2 Alt
Genesis 9:8 – 17 Psalm 25:1 – 10 1 Peter 3:18 – 22 Mark 1:9 – 15

Discussion of the Texts: Archaeological, geological, and linguistic scholarship over the last century has led many of us to recognize that the story of Noah and the Flood are mythological.  Now, when I speak of “myths,” “mythology,” and stories as “mythological,” it is apropos to recall that the term “myth” comes to us from the Greek ‘μυθος’ (transliterated as muthos, or as mythos).  From this etymological perspective, we may understand the “mythological” accounts of Scripture to be “stor[ies] that [unveil] the true origin of the world and human beings,” if not the facts of such origins (Catalin Partenie, “Plato’s Myths,” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, para. 1).  Within the Greek world, ‘μυθοι’ (the plural of ‘μυθος’ which is transliterated as muthoi or mythoi,) served a number of purposes, including persuasion and as a teaching tool (Partenie, “Plato’s Myths,” para. 11 – 15).  The latter is of particular interest for our readings today.

Today’s reading from Genesis recounts to us the conclusion of the Flood story.  The story, as we know, begins with the first warning of the Flood in Genesis 6:5 after God has determined that humankind has become too wicked, thus being grieved for having first created humanity (Genesis 6:5 – 6).  Following the destruction of the Flood, however, God establishes a covenant with the earth and the whole of the cosmos (Gen. 9:11), to never again destroy by water.  We could even say, in light of First Peter, the waters of the Flood were not merely (indeed, only partially so) a destructive force; rather, and more so, the waters of the Flood were creative and restorative:  “God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water” (1 Peter 3:20).  So, the Flood of Genesis 6:5 – 8:14 was a prefiguration of the waters of Baptism, a Sacrament which many recall weekly or even daily as they walk into churches around the world and dip their fingers into holy water fonts to then bless themselves; or upon those special occasions when a new life is Baptized in to the Church; or when the priest or minister walks through the worship space with water and aspergillum to bless renew the Baptismal promises once made.

For all of us, such actions will even doubtless recall for us the experiences of Jesus in the Jordan, as we read of them today from Mark:  “In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.  And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.  And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased’” (Mark 1:9 – 11).  However — and we have all certainly experienced such situations for ourselves — even as Jesus may have rejoiced over such an accolade, we are told that he was driven into the wilderness for forty days, to be tempted (Mark 1:12 – 13; cf. Matthew 4:1, Luke 4:1).  Following the forty days he spent in the wilderness, Jesus then returns, declaring the Reign of God “has come near,” the time being fulfilled (Mark 1:15).

Process Theology and the Texts: Arguably the greatest insight of process theology, one which is scripturally grounded, is that God changes.  Indeed, as the passages of Genesis recount for us, God’s “heart was grieved” over the depravities of humanity (Gen. 6:6), but later “remembered Noah and all the animals, wild and tame, that were with him in the ark” (Gen. 8:1); and later still, as we have read in the Lectionary for today, God will remember the covenant struck with the whole of Creation when seeing “the bow is seen in the clouds” (Gen. 9:14 – 16).

What does this teach us about God?  I should say that it illustrates how, contrary to the Scholastic and more broadly philosophic training which I have garnered over the last twelve years, the Divinity of process theology is one who rejoices in our triumphs and weeps with our sorrows, who delights in our successes and happiness while also decrying our sufferings.  Consider how the Gospel recount the tale of a God who has chosen to be with us (Matthew 1:23; cf. Isaiah 7:14 – 16) from the beginning of the present cosmos, approximately 13.78 billion years ago (if not more).

The Scripture reading from today can in fact lead us rightly to ponder the words of Whitehead:

The action of the fourth [creative] phase, [when creative action completes itself,] is the love of God for the world.  It is the particular providence for particular occasions.  What is done in the world is transformed into a reality in heaven, and the reality in heaven passes back into the world.  By reason of this reciprocal relation, the love in the world passes into the love in heaven, and floods back again into the world.  In this sense, God is the great companion — the fellow sufferer who understands.  (Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality [1929] 1957, 532; emphasis added)

The time, then, is always being fulfilled, such that the Reign of God is always near.  What is called for is the action upon our part to vitalize it within and thereby make incandescent our own communities, to find it present(ed) in and through those trials to be known and experienced in this life, struggles and tribulations known and experienced by God alongside us:  “Our pilgrimage on earth cannot be exempt from trial.  We progress by means of trial.  No one knows [him- or herself] except through trial, or receives a crown except after victory, or strives except against an enemy or temptations” (Augustine, Commentary on the Psalms; in the Office of Readings for the Lenten Season, Christian Prayer 1976).  Truly, it is God who walks with us, as in the poem “Footprints,” and who carries us, suffering with and for us.

Preaching the Texts: It is always best to preach to the needs of one’s community.  So, what may we discern in the texts read for today?  I would limit myself to two points which seem to me to be especially powerful, though certainly not to the exclusion of other possibilities presented to any given context and prehensions.

We could first consider the covenant which God establishes between the Cosmos and Divinity in the reading from Genesis.  How are we acting to either foster or fracture this covenant?  To what extent are we building the covenant between ourselves and our communities, and across communities?  And how are we building or destroying the covenant as it stands between us and the rest of Creation?  Along these lines we might consider the words of Peter Chrysologus:  “When you fast, see the fasting of others.  If you want God to know that you are hungry, know that another is hungry.  If you hope for mercy, show mercy.  If you look for kindness, show kindness.  If you want to receive, give.  If you ask for yourself what you deny to others, your asking is a mockery” (Peter Chrysologus, Sermon for Ash Wednesday; in the Office of Readings for the Lenten Season, Christian Prayer 1976).  The pertinence of this passage lies in the call to give and to know others, to encounter and live in relationship with others:  “All the paths of the LORD are steadfast love and faithfulness, for those who keep his [sic] covenant and his [sic]decrees” (Psalm 25:10).

Not only can we ponder today the ways by which we maintain and foster the covenant (or not); indeed, we can likewise — and we may even dare say ought to — recall the forty days Jesus spent in the wilderness.  Is not the season of Lent our wilderness?  As we first considered the forty days on Ash Wednesday, it is brought more to our attention that even Jesus spent many weeks fasting and in prayer, being tempted to turn away from the path set before him.  How do we find ourselves tempted, now at the beginning of this liturgical season?  What are the distractions which may draw us away from this phase of the creative act for the building of the Reign of God?  In such recollections we could say along with the Psalmist “Make me to know your ways, O LORD; teach me your paths.  Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all day long” (Psalm 25:4 – 5).  And likewise does God wait for us, as we hear in the hymn “Hosea”:  “Come back to me with all your heart, don’t let fear keep us apart…Long have I waited for your coming home to me, and living deeply our new life” (Gregory Norbert, “Hosea”).

Robert McDonald

Raised Roman Catholic, Rob is a first year PhD student with the Center for Process Studies at the Claremont School of Theology.  Having studied philosophy, theology, history, and public policy/administration at the undergraduate and graduate levels at both Gannon University (Erie, PA) and Gonzaga University (Spokane, WA), his specific research interests with the Center and CST (to hopefully culminate in a dissertation) are the ethical implications (especially environmental and social) of a comparative analysis/integration of the lives/works of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, SJ and Morihei Ueshiba (as well as the Kyoto School of philosophy), in light of Whiteheadian process thought.