This year we have the final part of the story of the flood and Noah’s ark. It is a wonderful story. And every time we look at a rainbow we are reminded of God’s promise. The rainbow, that most beautiful and transient of all things, is as we have heard, a reminder of God’s covenant; the close bond he established with us after the great flood. He makes his promise not only to mankind but also to every living creature. Respect for creation is not something new; the creator himself respects the whole of creation more than we ever could.
The rainbow is a wonderful sign of God’s love because of all its wonderful colours. How does it go? Richard of York Gained Battle In Vain: Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, Violet. All the colours are there and all the grades in between. And there are even colours we can’t see. This shows the breadth of God’s love. His love covers the whole range of existence and even things we are totally unaware of.
In some ancient cultures the rainbow is a sign of a weapon as in a bow and arrow; they say the rainbow is God’s bow and the lightning is his arrow. The rainbow for them is a sign of anger, but for us it is a sign of God’s love. We do enough things to provoke God’s anger, but in this great covenant God says that he will be merciful to us. Although we have sinned he will hold back his anger; instead he will love us all the more.
St Peter in the second reading sees in this water of the flood a prefigurement of Baptism. In Baptism we are washed free from our sins. Our Baptism becomes a special sign of God’s love for us individually. By Baptism he singles us out and unites us to himself by a special bond.
We are now in Lent and we think about fasting and doing penance. We read in the Gospel about Jesus spending time in the desert; he went there to be tested, and he experienced all kinds of temptations there. He emerged victorious, just as he was to emerge victorious after the greatest test of all his passion and death on the Cross.
The account of the temptation we are given in the Gospel of Mark reads almost like a telegram; it sounds staccato. There are just two verses compared to the more lengthy and fuller eleven verses of Matthew and thirteen of Luke.
Typically, the language of Mark is also a lot stronger. In both Matthew and Luke we read that Jesus was ‘led’ by the Spirit into the desert. But that’s not strong enough for Mark, no for him, the Spirit ‘drove’ Jesus out into the desert. We shouldn’t think of this as Jesus not wanting to go and so having to be driven, but rather as underlining the closeness between Jesus and the Spirit who impelled him into the desert.
Mark doesn’t bother about the content of the various temptations, he simply states the fact bluntly ‘he remained forty days, and was tempted by Satan’. The wild beasts are traditional symbols of evil and like Satan they prowl around looking for any signs of weakness.
Surprisingly there is no actual mention of fasting in this desert. But then it is probably not necessary to mention it because that’s what you would have to do anyway in a desert, unless you took along a lot of supplies which is most unlikely. There’s no 4x4 available to bring in any luxuries.
This time in the desert is a testing. And by enduring it successfully Jesus demonstrates that he is the Messiah. Both Moses and Elijah before him endured such periods of fasting and here in the desert Jesus proves that he is their true heir. The forty days is also a symbolic allusion to the forty years the Chosen People spent in the wilderness being tested by God. They spent those years of wandering in the desert in great adversity but through them learned some very hard lessons.
All testing involves privation and suffering. It involves doing without the comforts we are used to whether this be health, little luxuries or emotional supports. If all testing involves suffering then in spiritual terms we can also say that all suffering is a testing. And this is indeed so. In physical suffering we find all sorts of things removed from us that we normally consider essential for our daily life. And not only our health, but also all the comfortable routines, things and people we have around us. The test is what we put in their place; let us hope that the result will be increased faith and trust in God.
We can also undergo spiritual suffering when we experience times of doubt and darkness; these are also a testing. God seems so far away. We find it hard to place ourselves in his presence. We feel uncomfortable when the conversation turns to matters of faith. We sit in Church and wonder if all this isn’t a complete waste of time. This is a real testing. The wild beasts are prowling around us looking for our weaknesses. But, as with Jesus, the Angels are not far away. They guard us even though we are not conscious of their presence.
Any realistic person dreads being put to the test, but it is something we all have to endure. It is an essential element of our pilgrimage of faith. But you notice that even for Jesus it was for a fixed time; forty days. The good news is that there is always an end.
The Church gives us the liturgical season of Lent to help us to endure the time of testing whenever it comes. In Lent we are invited to undergo some small hardship as a spiritual exercise, as a strengthening and a preparation for that real time of testing that awaits us all. However, we don’t need to go into an actual desert; for in a sense we are already in a desert. The world is a desert for it lacks the most essential thing of all, knowledge of God.
In the desert we can place ourselves in God’s hands relying trustfully upon him. When we are tested, we remember those hidden Angels who are not so far away. When we experience these trials, we unite ourselves with Christ and ask him to endure the Temptation with us.
We then recognise that all these sufferings and difficulties we must endure are part and parcel of the life of a Christian and we know that they are only a sign of the victory that is to come. When we emerge from the desert we enter more fully into the presence of God and it will have all the beauty and more of the rainbow.
Father Alex McAllister SDS
Parish Priest of
St Thomas à Becket