February 26 NOTES FOR REFLECTION First Sunday in Lent
Texts: Genesis 9:8-17; 1 Peter 3:18-22; Mark 1:9-15
Theme: I'm going with "The Temptations of Humanity" (rather than the more usual "Temptations of Christ"), to emphasise that there is nothing unique to Christ in these temptations. All of us face them in some form or other: they may best be described as primal archetypes of temptation.
Introduction. A slightly odd collection of readings this week. Perhaps to reassure us as we enter the Season of Lent that God will not destroy us for our evil ways, we open the Season somewhat later in the Noah saga than we might have expected. The focus is not on the punishment of evil throughout the world, but on the offer of a new beginning and the promise that never again will God contemplate destroying his creation. Perhaps this gives us a slim clue as to the reason for choosing as our epistle reading one of the most obscure passages to be found in the New Testament. Whatever else it means (and there have been many suggestions over the centuries!), it at least means that no one (not even the worst of sinners long dead) is beyond the saving reach of Christ. Our gospel reading is in part a repeat, covering again Jesus' baptism, this time because of its immediate link with the temptations in the desert. It also serves as a timely reminder to us on this First Sunday in Lent of the link between our baptism, the gift of the Holy Spirit, and our salvation through the death and resurrection of Christ.
Background. The most useful guidance I can offer this week comes in the form of the following extensive quotations from Fr Thomas Keating's marvellous book, The Mystery of Christ: The Liturgy as Spiritual Experience.
(From p. 36) According to the evidence of developmental psychology, each human being recapitulates the pre-rational stages of development toward full reflective self-consciousness that the human family as a whole has undergone in its evolutionary ascent. In the first six months of life, the infant is immersed in nature and has no awareness of a separate identity. As the infant begins to differentiate a body-self, its emotional life clusters around its instinctual drives for survival/security, affection/esteem, and power/control. Image patterns, emotional reactions and behaviour gravitate around these instinctual needs and create elaborate and well-defended programmes for happiness (or programmes to avoid unhappiness) that might be called "energy centres"...
...When these programmes for happiness are frustrated, upsetting emotions such as grief, apathy, greed, lust, pride or anger instantly arise. If these emotions are painful enough, one is prepared to trample on the rights and needs of others, as well as our own true good, in order to escape the pain. This leads to the behaviour that we call personal sin. Personal sin is the symptom of a disease. The disease is the false-self system: the gradual building up of the programs for happiness initiated in early childhood and expanded into energy centres around which one's thoughts, feelings, reactions, mindsets, motivations and behaviour gravitate. As each new stage of developing human consciousness unfolds, an increasing sense of separation emerges, along with the corresponding feelings of fear and guilt. We come to full reflective consciousness with the pervasive sense of alienation from ourselves, other people and God.
(From pages 41-2) In the desert Jesus is tempted by the primitive instincts of human nature. Satan first addresses Jesus' security/survival needs, which constitute the first energy centre. "If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become bread."...
...The devil then took Jesus to the holy city, set him on the parapet of the temple and suggested, "If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down...In other words, "If you are the Son of God, manifest your power as a wonder-worker. Jump off this skyscraper. When you stand up and walk, everybody will regard you as a bigshot and bow down before you." This is the temptation to love fame and esteem....
...The third energy centre is the desire to control events and to have power over others. Satan took Jesus to a lofty mountain and displayed before him all the kingdoms of the world, promising "All these I will bestow on you if you will prostrate yourself in homage to me." The temptation to worship Satan in exchange for the symbols of unlimited power is the last-ditch effort of the false-self to achieve its own invulnerability and immortality.
My own comment on all this is this: it seems to me that what Fr Keating is talking about here is very similar to Jesus' teaching on 'clean' and 'unclean', with his insistence that we are made unclean, not by what enters through our mouths, but by what comes out of our hearts. Substitute 'subconscious' for 'heart' in Mark 7:20-23 and see what I mean.
Genesis. The muddled and repetitive structure of the text is usually taken to mean that it is an ancient text, and probably put together from two or more sources – the skills of a redactor (editor) not being of a high level at the time. For all that, it's an important text, speaking of a new beginning after the widespread devastation of a natural disaster (obvious connections with Canterbury Earthquake, Japanese tsunami, etc). It also provides a sound theological basis for modern ecological and environmental concerns: God's covenant is not just with humanity but with all living creatures.
The passage obviously acts as an aetiological myth, 'explaining' the existence of rainbows. Simple observation tells us that they are most visible when there is high water content in the air and sunlight, most often after rain and at the start of clearing skies. Hence its obvious connection with the end of the Flood and the start of better weather to come. The science of the time would not have known anything about diffraction of light, of course, but the rainbow is a useful symbol of difference and unity, and the fecundity and complexity of light. We talk of simplicity and clarity as a matter of black-and-white, without realising how different these are. White is a composite of seven (the perfect number) beautiful colours: Black is simply the absence of light.
Taking It Personally.
· Reflect on the whole Noah story. What does it tell you about the nature of God?
· Reflect on the whole issue of natural disasters, most of which cannot be blamed on human wrongdoing. The Bible holds God responsible for the Flood (albeit as the divine response to widespread human sin). How would you respond today to any suggestion that an earthquake or tsunami was "sent" by God to punish sinful people?
· What does this story tells us about the worth and dignity of all other living creatures?
· How might your attitude towards rainbows change as you reflect on this story?
Peter. This passage is generally accepted by New Testament scholars as among the most difficult to comprehend. From this has come the whole idea of the harrowing of hell on Holy Saturday. The basic idea seems to be concerned with those who have died before the coming of Christ. If salvation is only available through faith in Christ, how can it apply "retrospectively"? The somewhat obscure answer given here is that Jesus took the gospel even into the depths of Hades for the benefit of even the worst of sinners, symbolised by those of Noah's time. The Flood waters are seen as a symbol of baptism, and the ark becomes a forerunner of the Church - hence the word "nave" (from the Latin for "boat") still used for the main area of a church building.
Taking It Personally. I must confess that this passage has defied all my attempts to take it personally! I can only suggest you take it as an opportunity to reflect on the eternal reach of God – past, present and future are all as one to God; and/or to reflect on your own baptism and its significance in your life.
Mark. The first thing to notice about this passage is its brevity: cf. Matthew 3:13-4:11; and Luke 3:21-22, 4:1-13. [John has no direct reference to Jesus' baptism, nor to his temptation in the desert.] Mark's account of the temptation is particularly brief, and we need to go to Matthew or Luke for the details. The reference to being "with the wild animals", is an interesting one. At one level it may simply mean that Jesus was constantly in danger – the desert was a dangerous place, being the haunt of wild animals. On the other hand, Mark uses the word "with" which can mean "accompanied by"; in which case we may have a hint of Jesus being in harmony with all creatures. [This might be the link with the first lesson, the covenant with all living creatures.] But at another level "wild animals" can be symbolic of our natural instincts and emotions (Jesus was undergoing an inner struggle); or of demonic beings (which would seem to be superfluous given that Jesus has been confronted by Satan himself!) However, given the immediately following reference to the angels attending to Jesus, the picture of a contest of the good spiritual beings and the evil spiritual beings could have been intended. One thing that is certain is that the reference to the angels symbolises the Father's providential care of the Son during the time of trial. (cf. Matthew 26:53; and recall Christ's terrible cry of abandonment on the cross – Matthew 27:46).
Taking It Personally.
· This is the classic passage with which to begin Lent. It calls for a spiritual stock-take. What most tempts you to turn away from God?
· Following Fr Keating's analysis above, which of the "three energy centres" is most problematic for you, safety/security, affection/esteem, or power/control? Do you find his comments helpful in understanding yourself and others?
· Notice that Satan's suggestions do not seem evil in themselves. Jesus was desperately hungry: why not turn a stone into bread? Jesus needed to draw the attention of the masses; why not put on a death-defying show? Jesus came into a corrupt, warring world: why not take all political power? But can the ways of the world be defeated by following the ways of the world?
· Do the ends ever justify the means?
· How might Jesus' alternative way – of love, service, surrender, acceptance, etc – shape your prayers for God's intervention in a particular situation?
· When we refer to God as "almighty" what is the nature of the "might" we are ascribing to God?