I never cease to be amazed at how much difficulty people have with the directive: Take your places, please! And it is not just children who cannot seem to follow it. Try to get graduate students to form a line for commencement. Many of our problems stem from our inability to know our place, or stay in our place. We do not respect national boundaries; we trespass on private property; we push our way to the front. This is often true in our relationships as well. We come uninvited to parties; we assume positions of superiority; we allow others to control us. We do not always know what places to take.
What does this have to do with Lent? Quite a bit. The first readings for all the Lenten Sundays in Lectionary Cycle B celebrate our covenant relationships with God. We will see that the various covenants are marked by: a rainbow, a test of faith, inscription on stone tablets, the policy of a pagan king, receptive hearts and, finally, a servant who speaks a word that rouses the weary. The relentless desire of God to be in relationship with us clearly comes forward in these readings.
We might say that Lent is a season of covenant-making, and covenant marks our true place before God. Therefore, rather than simply enter into this season considering it only as a penitential commemoration of the 40 days that Jesus spent in the desert, let us view it from the perspective of our place in covenant relationship with God.
The first reading comes from the story of Noah, which is not merely a fanciful tale told to children. Nor is the bow in the sky simply a colorful sign that has been domesticated for greeting cards. The ancient stories of creation frequently included some kind of cosmic battle fought between the forces of chaos and a youthful warrior god. Several Meso-potamian artifacts depict creator-gods with quivers full of arrows. Flood waters symbolized for many ancient people what a mushroom cloud symbolizes for us today—total annihilation.
In today’s reading we see the cosmic order established by our mighty God after vanquishing the chaos that threatened the entire world. Hanging the bow in the sky is a sign that the primordial war is over, bow and arrows are no longer needed, and all of creation can rest secure. It is similar to the old Western movie—when the outlaws are no longer a threat, the sheriff can hang up his guns.
According to the biblical story, this is the first covenant made by God. It is not only first in a series of covenants, but it is also fundamental to all other such relationships. It provides an overview of cosmic order, and it highlights the place of human beings within that order.
It is important to note that this covenant is not made between God and Noah alone, but with Noah’s descendants generation after generation. Nor is it merely made with humankind, but with all living creatures and with the earth itself. This covenant declares that God is in a providential relationship with all of natural creation, and will be so down through the ages.
And what is our place within this cosmic panorama? We are part of the breathless spectacle of life, along with every other living creature: the birds, the various tame and wild animals, the earth itself. But because we do not know our place in this world, or are not willing to accept it, we bring chaos back into it. We violate living systems; we horde natural resources; we fight wars over land or oil; we deprive each other of necessary food. We act as if the natural world were a personal commodity to do with as we please, and we use the fruits of this magnificent world as weapons against one another.
Lent is a time to put things back into order, to take our proper place in the world. To do this effectively, it might be good to spend some time in the desert, in some barren place devoid of excessive comforts and social distractions. We need not be frightened by what we find there. Though Jesus was tempted by Satan, he was comforted by God’s angels. It may not be possible for us to go out to the desert, but we can all certainly go in to a deeper level of ourselves, to the conscience of which 1 Peter speaks.
Lent invites us to examine that conscience with honesty and new insight. It provides us with an opportunity to look anew at our place in this world as creatures of the earth, dependent upon it for sustenance and survival. We are reminded that our first responsibility is the nurture of life, not human life alone, but life itself. Our conscience alerts us to the fact that we cannot arrogantly march through the land, disdainful of it and of those others who live off its abundance. How can we genuinely renew our lives if we overlook our fundamental groundedness in the cosmic covenant that is placed before us for our consideration this First Sunday of Lent.