Bottom line: As we focus on baptism, we remember the covenant God made with Noah – a covenant that God continues in the voice of conscience.
Today we celebrate the First Sunday of Lent. It is significant that in the opening reading we hear about the covenant that God made with Noah. Our Jewish brothers and sisters refer to this as the Noahide Covenant. This covenant does not just apply to Jews, but to the whole human race. You will remember that in the Bible Noah and his family were the sole survivors of the great flood.
According to Jewish scholars, the Noahide Covenant has seven pillars. They include the prohibition of idolatry, murder, theft, sexual immorality and blasphemy. This applies to us today. Sometimes people ask if there are moral rules that all humans must follow. We have an answer in the Noahide Covenant: It is wrong to kill, to take innocent human life. It is wrong to steal - to do violence to another human being by robbing his possessions. It is wrong to engage in sexual immorality. Do I need to go into details? These teachings are not new – they go back to Noah.*
God made a covenant with our father, Noah. But something has gone wrong. To understand what happened, I would like to quote from C.S. Lewis:
"What Satan put into the heads of our remote ancestors was the idea that they could 'be like gods' - could set up on their own as if they had created themselves - be their own masters - invent some sort of happiness for themselves outside God, apart from God. And out of that hopeless attempt has come nearly all that we call human history - money, poverty, ambition, war, prostitution, classes, empires, slavery - the long terrible story of man trying to find something other than God which will make him happy."
When you think about it, every sin is a form of idolatry - imagining that something other than God will us peace, lasting happiness. That is why the first pillar of the Noahide covenant is the prohibition of idolatry - the attempt make some person or thing into a god.
Regarding idolatry, it is important to remember that, although as Christians we obey the laws of our country, we cannot allow the government to take the place of God. That is a temptation today. Since we have lost the consensus about right and wrong, we can be tempted to look to the government to tell us what is morally correct. For example, we see our government telling us that it is OK for two men to marry – or that it is OK to take the life of an unborn child. The government is not God. There is a commandment that says, "I am the Lord your God. You shall not have strange gods before me." I will say more about this when we have Generations of Faith, but for now I would to make this observation:
When we are tempted, we need to remember about Jesus going into the desert for forty days. St. Mark states very briefly that Jesus was "tempted by Satan." Unlike us he withstood temptation. In doing so, he shows us that it is possible - with grace - to resist Satan, to put God first, to recognize that only He can make us happy, only He can give us peace. The things of God's creation are good. We should receive them with gratitude, but if you have made some created thing into a god, Jesus has a word for you, "Repent."
"This is the time of fulfillment.
The kingdom of God is at hand.
Repent, and believe in the gospel."
Now, Jesus is not speaking about some vague repentance. He has a specific plan. The first step is to pray. He gave us an example by spending forty days in prayer. You might say, "How can I get time to pray?" That's where the second step comes in: fasting. Not just eating more simply - but fasting from other things: video games, chat rooms, television, the Internet and cell phone. Instead of email, why not try knee-mail? Knee mail is getting down on your knees and praying for the person you are concerned about.
So, prayer and fasting. They lead to the third step: financial sacrifice. Let's face it, as Americans it is easy for us to make money into an idol. When I was in Peru, I saw how a small amount of economic help can make an enormous difference in the life of child or a family. Our financial sacrifices can make a positive change in our world. Giving will not only help the other person, but the giver himself. It is the most practical way of saying, "all that I am and all I have, I owe to you. It belongs to you, not me."
I began this homily with Noah and I will end with Noah. St. Paul tells us that Noah prefigures baptism because he and his family "were saved through water." During Lent we look forward to the baptism of our elect - and the renewal of our own baptism.
As we focus on baptism, we remember the covenant God made with Noah – a covenant that God continues in the voice of conscience.** Like our ancestors we often do not listen to that voice; we give in to temptations. Jesus has a concrete plan of repentance that includes prayer, fasting and financial sacrifice. Repent, and believe in the gospel. Amen.
*The covenant with Noah lives today in the voice of conscience. Just as God spoke to Noah, he speaks to us in our conscience. In recent weeks our bishops have been reminding us Catholics - and our fellow citizens as well - that conscience is real. In our conscience God speaks to us about the meaning of human life and human sexuality. Even if it means fines and imprisonment, our bishops are telling that we must not go against conscience. It is the voice of God. It is good to have that reminder, especially as we begin these forty days of Lent.
**We have a somewhat anemic sense of conscience today, but it was not always so. Blessed John Newman said, "if I am asked why I believe in a God, I answer that it is because I believe in myself, for I feel it impossible to believe in my own existence (and of that fact I am quite sure) without believing also in the existence of Him, who lives as a Personal, All-seeing, All-judging Being in my conscience." (Apologia Pro Vita Sua) The Catechism quotes Newman's definition of conscience: "Conscience is not a long-sighted selfishness, nor a desire to be consistent with oneself; but it is a messenger from Him, Who, both in nature and grace, speaks to us behind a veil, and teaches and rules us by His representatives. Conscience is the aboriginal Vicar of Christ." (1778)
From the Archives:
Complete List of Homilies for First Sunday of Lent ("Temptation Sunday"):
Ash Wednesday homilies:
Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C
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