Readings for 1st Sunday of Lent: GN 9: 8-15; PS 25: 4-9; I PT 3: 18-22; MK 1: 12-15
Pope Francis is going to be a busy man this spring. In June he’ll publish his much-anticipated encyclical on climate change. He’ll then convoke a meeting of world religious leaders to discuss the topic. Presumably, they’ll endorse the encyclical’s main points.
Then in September, the pope will travel to New York to bring the message of those leaders to the United Nations. Afterwards, he’ll head off to D.C. to do the same before the U.S. Congress.
Clearly, the pope is a man on a mission. At the age of 78, he’s evidently experiencing a sense of urgency. He has a clear spiritual and practical vision for saving the world from impending disaster brought on by unregulated industrial capitalism and by a neo-liberal world order that he has rejected out of hand on more than one occasion during his brief reign as Supreme Pontiff.
The liturgy of the word for this first Sunday of Lent highlights the pope’s concern for the environment and calls us to become visionaries like him – and especially like the young prophet, Jesus of Nazareth, as depicted in today’s Gospel.
Take this morning’s first reading. Its focus, like the pope’s, is environmental destruction. Genesis, chapter nine gives the ending of the familiar story of Noah and his Ark. There God makes a promise (3 times in fact) to Noah, his sons, their descendants, and (significantly) to the birds and animals, that he will never again destroy “all bodily creatures” by flood waters.
The Responsorial Psalm then reminds us that we can trust God’s word, because God, in the psalmist’s words, is compassionate, loving, kind, good, upright and just.
It’s that loving God whose Spirit in today’s gospel drives Jesus out to the desert for his “Lenten Retreat” – 40 days and nights of prayer and fasting. The Spirit sends him on a vision quest intimately connected with Pope Francis’ vision for the world’s future.
Recall the circumstances of Jesus’ quest. John the Baptizer has just baptized Jesus as one of his disciples. On emerging from the waters of the Jordan, Jesus receives a startling revelation about his true identity. A voice from heaven addresses him, “You are my beloved son,” it says.
Surprised and perhaps shaken by that revelation, Jesus retreats to the desert to determine what it all might mean. As I said, it’s a vision quest. And immediately the visions come – more heavenly voices, Satan, angels, and wild beasts.
All of these elements are important. They belong to Israel’s “apocalyptic” tradition – a highly political genre promising the overthrow of the nation’s imperial oppressors. Jesus’ visions call him to continue the work of John the Baptist, who, Mark informs us, has just been arrested. Jesus’ task is to announce the proximity of “God’s Kingdom.” It’s a world where God is king instead of Caesar. It’s a world like the one promised in the Book of Genesis. There human beings live in complete harmony with their Heavenly Father/Mother, with one another, with animals, birds, fish, and plants.
That’s the vision Pope Francis will evoke in his upcoming encyclical. If his past statements are any guide, he’ll remind us that God may have promised not to destroy the earth by flood. But Mother Nature has given no such guarantee.
A month ago, on his flight to Manila, the pontiff told reporters, “God always forgives, we sometimes forgive, but when nature — creation — is mistreated, she never forgives!”
This Lent we would do well to ponder those words and to implement changes in our own spiritual, political and economic visions to prevent a disaster completely reminiscent of Noah’s familiar story.
What Lenten changes do you think most appropriate – for us as individuals and for our country?