Maybe the best way of entering the spirit of these readings is to hear them through the ears of adult converts preparing for baptism. That is the original purpose of Lent—preparation for baptism during the Easter Vigil service. The first two readings, with their talk of rescue through water and the engagement of covenant, strike the baptism theme boldly. And the Gospel scene of Jesus being prepared for his mission through forty days of testing in the desert, living among the beasts and ministered to by divine messengers, suggests the challenging and blessed process of the catechumen moving toward a new kind of life. Though catechumens among us are few, the readings that illuminate what they are doing speak directly to the rest of us in the worshiping community. Lent calls us all to renew and to enter more deeply into the meaning of our own baptism.
Our particular moment in history warrants a closer look at the First Reading, the “rainbow covenant” after the flood. In some ways, the traditions about Noah exemplify what makes many adult Christians uneasy about their biblical heritage. They find the image of God here—punishing everyone, even the innocent animals—all too human. They have heard about parallels to the flood story in other literature of the ancient Near East and wonder what these “borrowings” really have to do with living Christian faith today And yet, properly understood, the story of the Noah family, the flood, and the rainbow covenant may be peculiarly pertinent precisely to us members of the North Atlantic community as we recede from the twentieth century in an environment deeply threatened by human abuse.
The inspired writers of Genesis knew exactly what they were doing when they elaborated on the traditions of their neighbors and spent a generous stretch of their parchment on “the flood story.” As they put together the traditions of Israel, they chose to introduce the ancestral traditions (the stories about Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) with a brief summary of what we have come to call the primeval history. Before the story of Israel comes the story of everybody (Genesis 1-11). The lion's share of the primeval history is devoted to Noah and sons. If the story of Israel (beginning at Gen 12) is the story of a divine love affair with a chosen people, then the primeval history is the story of the even larger, prior picture of divine creation, human (and divine) “de-creation,” and divine re-creation. The sacred authors exemplify human de-creation in five examples of human rebellion—the disobedience of Adam and Eve, Cain’s murder of Abel, the widespread arrogance and violence of the generation preceding the flood, Ham’s disrespect of his father Noah, and the technological arrogance of the tower builders of Babel.
The whole story of everybody is bound together with talk of covenant, which flowers in today's First Reading. Even as God instructs Noah to build the ark, he says, “But with you I will establish [or confirm] my covenant” (Gen 6:18). That is the first time covenant (berith) is mentioned in the Torah, and the word used to describe what God plans to do with it can be translated (more naturally, some would claim) “confirm.” On this reading, the covenant that God confirms in chapter 9 is the one already established in the original creation itself—that is, the covenant relationship built into the bond between Creator and creatures by virtue of their coming into existence in the first place.
Indeed, the rainbow covenant confirmed (or established) in Genesis 9 does embrace all creation, “every living creature,” even “the earth.”By the covenant with Abram in Genesis 12 God makes a fresh start in implementing the covenant of creation, since “all the communities of the earth shall find blessing” in Abram. Indeed, as Isaiah will put it, Israel is meant to be a “light to the nations” (Is 49:6). The Church, then, claims that vocation to have been fulfilled in Jesus and in the mission of the Jesus people. Consequence: the mission of baptized Christians is nothing less than to implement the covenant of creation. Thus our baptism grounds our Church's call to attend to ecological justice.