By Father Martin Ganeri, O.P.
In the ancient Catacombs in Rome the early Christians painted many scenes from the Bible and one of the most frequently represented is that of Noah and the Ark. The Catacombs were places of burial and places of sanctuary for the early Christians in the dark days before the toleration of Christianity in 315A.D. under Emperor Constantine.
The story of Noah and Ark expressed very well the ambiguity of the situation of those early Christians. On the one hand, the destructive and terrifying waters of the flood expressed the dangers they encountered, as they faced persecution, torture and death for following Jesus and His teachings. On the other hand, the waters also symbolized the water of baptism and their entry into the new life they had in Christ, as Saint Peter tells us in the second reading for this Sunday. The Ark symbolized the Church in which they could experience the salvation Christ offered to them as members of His Body. So the story of Noah and the Ark was a fitting and powerful image for both their fears and their hopes, for both their suffering and their liberation. It symbolized both death and life.
As we start Lent once again we turn our minds to what we might give up. Sometimes these can seem trivial things, like tea or coffee or cakes or sweets, tokens of abstinence. Yet, whatever we give up we usually find that, as the weeks go by, we come to realize how much we miss them and how dependent we are on them. The various stresses and strains in our lives make such ‘creature comforts’ a way of managing and coping with the demands placed on us. At the same time, by the end of Lent, we often ourselves more easily detached from them. We have become liberated from them. So, giving up things for Lent can teach us to face and overcome more serious challenges and temptations, and to experience a greater freedom.
In the Gospel passage from Mark we hear how the Spirit drove Christ into the wilderness, where He remained for forty days, tempted by Satan. He was with the wild beasts, symbolizing in their own way danger and death, but, He was also looked after by Angels; symbolizing deliverance and life. As we begin this Lent, we are invited to enter our own wilderness during these coming forty days. We are invited to enter a wilderness of prayer, in which we find time to think about our lives and about the need we have of God and of the salvation he gives us in Christ.
Lent can be an opportunity for us to step away from the business of our ordinary lives, involving all the things we do for work or leisure, which often distract us from facing the deeper patterns and habits of sin within us that damage us and damage those around us.
The three practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving that Christ teaches us and which we make a central focus each Lent are wonderful tools to help us as we seek to enter the wilderness of contemplation this Lent. Silent prayer, or prayerful, attentive spiritual reading, causes us to reflect more deeply on the reality of God and of what God offers to us. Fasting in all its forms, whether from food or giving up other things, allows us to let go. Almsgiving, in the many different forms this can take, whether giving money, material goods, or our time to others, shows us the capacity we have for love.
In each of these practices we experience little realities of death and life, of struggle and sacrifice, but also of a freedom to be more than we were, better than we were. They open us up to hear again and more fully the Good News of the Kingdom that Christ proclaims to us, the deliverance from death and the fullness of life He promises and makes real for us.