War and peace at the beginning of Lent

Published on 16 Feb 2021

He was with the wild beasts. For forty days in the desert Jesus was in the company of the animals. He came to no harm.   Long before, God made an agreement with Noah: I establish my covenant with you and your descendants, also with every living creature to be found with you, birds, cattle and every wild beast with you; everything that came out of the ark, everything that lives on the earth [1].  A harmony is established after earlier upheaval.  Peace comes after long turmoil. 

Lent rescues us from forces which threaten to overwhelm us.  During this season, we watch intently as Christ does battle with evil.  Stoutly constructed of prayer, penance and almsgiving, the good ship Lent keeps us safe as war is waged around us.  The Lord is fighting for us: we are not mere spectators but we must leave the hard work to him.  Our task is to follow closely what he is doing and to pray.  Within the ark there is peace, but outside a storm rages.  When the flood subsides, it will become clear that Christ has triumphed in his war with evil.  The ark of Lent carries us safely to Easter.   A new covenant is established.  In the celebration of the paschal mystery, waters which might have destroyed are re-channelled into baptismal new life. And so the waters will never again become a flood to destroy all things of flesh [2].  Lent prepares us to celebrate the victory, the new covenant and the new life. During this holy time we are in a kind of life-boat. That water is a type of the baptism which saves you now [3].  The tumult around us contrasts with the serenity of our way of living.  We allow ourselves to be schooled by the Lord in prayer, humility and love.  Meanwhile, right beside us, he battles for us against all that threatens us spiritually, including temptation.  Remember your mercy, Lord, and the love you have shown from of old [4].  He wins a war fought on our behalf. He gives us the peace in which we can now return to God. Jesus lived tranquilly with the animals in the wilderness.  He is the new Noah.  The ancient serpent, the subtlest of the wild animals [5], cannot defeat him.  The temptations of Satan failed.  The tempter was tamed. Our Lenten activities and attitudes deepen the peace between us and our creator. 

A peaceable kingdom establishes itself around Jesus.  The wolf lives with the lamb, the panther lies down with the kid, calf and lion cub feed together with a little boy to lead them. The cow and the bear make friends [6].  The prince of peace is at peace with nature.  The Spirit drove Jesus out into the wilderness and he remained there for forty days, and was tempted by Satan [7].  Lent is patterned by the temptation in the desert. Does the wrestling-match between Christ and evil seem too remote from the peaceable kingdom?  The surprising harmonies which prefigured the birth of the Prince of Peace are emblems also of his work among us.   In the holy season of Lent we savour both the peace which the Lord has established and the victory which he has won for us. Christ himself, innocent though he was, died once for sins, died for the guilty, to lead us to God [8].  The Son has come to reconcile us with the Father and with each other. He achieves this by doing battle with the forces of evil and by establishing a lasting peace. Lent includes us in the combat but shields us with serenity. We are being caught up in a war in which the victor arms us with peace.  The tempted saviour shows us how he sees off temptation.  The guile of Satan could get no purchase against Christ.  Evil often makes more headway with us.  However, we are protected by the One who has already won the battle and brought an end to the conflict.  He was with the wild beasts, and the angels looked after him [9].   In Lent, we are with him in the desert.  It could be an empty, dangerous, un-nourishing sort of place.  In his company we are sustained amid the privations.  What at first looks barren turns out to be very fruitful.    An arena of danger turns out to be, for us, the locus of our salvation.  The closer we are to the saviour, even in the wilderness, the safer we are.  The lack of nourishment, when it is endured with Christ, turns out to be a banquet of the bread of angels. 

He was with the wild beasts.  Jesus is with us.  Are we, then, the wild beasts who circled around Jesus for the forty days?   In Lent, the Lord tames us.  He confers peace on us.  The conflicts of earlier days subside.  In this holy time, Christ coaxes us towards accepting his easy yoke and towards taking that gentle bridle and bit which are faithful discipleship.  During this season, Jesus breaks us in to his way, truth and life.  He domesticates us for life in the kingdom of God.   The old Covenant with Noah – the promise not to destroy creation, not to sweep away nature – is now fulfilled in something even better than non-destruction, that is, in salvation. What was once wild and combative in us is now submitting happily to God’s rule and providence.  The flood does its worst.  The wilderness brings its trials.  The tempter tries its subtle best.  Like the ark settling once more on dry land, Jesus emerges triumphant from the desert time.  For us, patterning ourselves on him during Lent, there is much confidence and gratitude.  He provides everything we need.   I set my bow in the clouds and it will be a sign of the Covenant between me and the earth [10]. God keeps his promises and cares for us.  The Father sends the Son to save us.   The Holy Spirit broods over all that is taking place.  When the battle with the tempter is over, our Lenten ark will come to rest in the paschal mystery.  Through the resurrection of Jesus Christ [11],  the Lord will arch himself over the whole of creation.  Jesus renders the wilderness friendly.  He fills our Lent with grateful trust in his mission to save us. He is with us now and forever

Noah’s ark was well constructed, but surely it was fragile in the flood? Lent is full of solid spiritual and chartable practice: it is a very sound ark.  Yet as the cosmic struggle with the evil heaves and tosses around it, does it seem frail?  Noah’s old wooden boat, constructed at God’s command, must have seemed flimsy as the many waters poured down.  Could a few pieces of wood fixed together protect the refugees from the mighty flood?   A structure of wood, holding together amid great danger, has become an emblem of our salvation. The ark shows us what happens when all God’s creatures trust him; when we realise that in him alone is our safety. Noah, his family and the animals trusted and were safe.  The forty-day flood was a test for them and they survived.  Jesus, with the wild beasts in the wilderness, also underwent a test.  He went into the desert to pray and to gather strength for his great deeds. He was tempted not to go through with what he had come into the world to do.  Once more, it would turn out, the salvation of the world would be secured by some pieces of wood held together.  Jesus trusted in the Spirit when he went out into the wilderness.  On Calvary, he would pray:  into your hands I commend my spirit [12].   The ark comes to rest, so to speak, on that hill, at once fearsome and infinitely reassuring.  Our Lenten devotion allows us to walk with Jesus towards his passion.  His victory is at first, not obvious.  He will be attacked and killed.  His enemies, brutal and bloodthirsty, will, initially seem to win.  He dies on the cross.  Pieces of wood, put together to make a gibbet, seem like a shipwreck.  Yet this flimsy construction of wood again proves strong enough to be a place of safety, at least for us.  The new Noah suffers and dies for us. He is nailed to the spar to which we cling: he died so that we might be rescued.  If the cross is the new ark, then it proves even better than its prototype. The cross secures a greater safety. 

He was with the animals and he is with us.  Lent engulfs us like a wave carrying us to the shore towards which for a long time we have been trying to steer our craft.  Christ is the pilot. He awaits us within ourselves.  Our nature is home to him and he shows us how to be at home in it.   He was with the wild animals, and came to no harm.  He was protected by the angels.  God has placed us between the angels and the beasts.  Jesus dwells among us.  He tames us and loves us.  His being with us saves us.  The Spirit has brought him to where we are.  Responsive to the same Spirit, e are learning to live peacefully while war rages around us.  While winning his great victory, Christ protects us and strengthens us.  During the Lent now beginning, and in the new life, which he is always offering us, the Lord Jesus carries further towards completion the good work that he has long ago begun.

Homily by Father Peter Gallagher SJ

[1]              Genesis 9.8-10

[2]              Genesis 9.15

[3]              1 Peter 3.21

[4]              Psalm (25) 24.6

[5]              Genesis 3.1

[6]              Isaiah 11.6-7

[7]              Mark 1.12-13

[8]              1 Peter 3.18

[9]              Mark 1.13

[10]            Genesis 9.13

[11]            1 Peter 3.21

[12]            Luke 23.46