We are very fortunate this year that the readings at Mass have coincided perfectly with this season of preparation for Lent. We have heard of the creation of the world, the fall of man, and today, we heard the beginning of the story of the deluge.
In our own Premonstratensian rite, we hear these stories every year in the Office of Matins in the season of Septuagesima, the two-and-a-half week season of pre-Lent. We sometimes complain that Lent suddenly appears like a thief in the night, it can take a while to get into the right gear of this holy penitential season, which is why, of course, the Church in her wisdom established the practice of preparing for Lent, so that we did not waste the season.
The first few chapters of the Book of Genesis explain who we are and why we are here: importantly, they also tell us why we are the way we are. Why do we fall in love? Why do we suffer? We come to realise how fallible we are, and how foolish we must be to rely on solely ourselves or indeed anything other than God. People can spend their whole life thinking up answers to the question: “what is the meaning of life” without realising that it’s already written down there from chapter one, verse one: we were made to be loved, and to love.
I have a great devotion to Adam the Patriarch, our first parent. He knows rather a lot about human nature, and so he’s a goodly patron to talk to sometimes. Genesis says that he lived to a ripe old age of 930. These historical details are shrouded in mystery. We see his descendants dying at ever younger ages, until, by the time of Noah, no man lived more than 120 years. The years are irrelevant, what is important is that the further away we travel from Almighty God (in this case, symbolised by time from the Fall), the more the decay sets in. Just before the start of Septuagesima, we celebrated the feast of the Purification of Our Lady, or Candlemas, the last day of Christmas. History has left us a wonderful Candlemas sermon by St Sophronius, one of the eastern fathers, who said that Simeon and Anna in the Temple are shadowy representations of Adam and Eve grown very old. They devote themselves to God in the Temple (symbolic of Eden), living a life of penance for the sin which condemned their whole race. When Simeon takes hold of the Baby Jesus in his weak and wrinkled arms, it is as if Adam himself is taking the Babe in his arms, and he weeps, and says: “At last all powerful Master, you give leave for your servant to go in peace, according to your promise. For my eyes have seen your salvation which you have prepared for all nations. The light to enlighten the Gentiles, and give glory to your people Israel.” In this little Baby, Adam has realised, at last, that he has been forgiven: he can now rest from his wearisome toil, his exile from paradise. Of course, this old Adam recognises his God. He used to talk to him and walk with him in the garden. In the flesh, that same God now falls asleep in his arms; in the spirit, it is Adam that rests in God once more.
In Lent, we begin to experience that realisation for ourselves, too. Noah has just built his ark. Noah’s Ark is the Church. It is our shelter in our exile; while creation is washed clean, we are saved from drowning in the tempest of the world by her sacraments.
One important part of the story of Noah is often missed out. Why did Noah collect only two of the unclean animals, but seven of the clean animals? The clean animals are the animals which are set aside for sacrifice to God. And when Noah comes into land, he sacrifices those animals to the God who has saved. And in response, God promises not to destroy his creation again. When Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to the Temple, what did they bring to sacrifice? Two turtledoves, as the law permitted instead of a lamb for the poor; Noah sacrificed birds on the first altar of the washed creation. But what else did Mary and Joseph bring to sacrifice? They not only brought birds, but they also brought the Lamb Himself: the light that will enlighten the Gentiles and give glory to Israel when His Sacred Heart burns on the Altar of Calvary. Another deluge covered the earth that day, but it was not a deluge like that of Noah’s time: it is a deluge of Blood that gives life to those who quench their thirst when they drink It.
Today, this last day before Lent, the Church celebrates the feast of the Seven Holy Founders of the Servite Order (although in our own calendar today is the feast of St Evermode; Shrove Tuesday is also the feast of the Holy Face of Jesus, but lest we over-egg the pancake, we’ll revisit devotion to the Holy Face over the next few weeks). Our house in Chelmsford was once a Servite house, and so we are especially bound to these saints in our community. Indeed, our canonry is dedicated to Our Lady of Sorrows, a devotion propagated by the Servites, and which we have gladly adopted as our own, for our Sorrowful Mother at the foot of the Cross was the first to be drenched in the Precious Blood. Over a hundred years after the death of Our Holy Father Norbert, these seven doves sacrificed themselves by allowing God break their hearts. Over this holy season of Lent, may we too allow God to break our hearts, and wash away the detritus of sin and decay that has accumulated within us. Walk with Jesus in the desert, and remain close to his Sorrowful Mother, and may you be brought safe into harbour by the burning flame of the Paschal Candle on Easter Eve.