Mark 1:12-15, First Sunday of Lent
The story of Noah and the flood is not a Genesis original. It’s from a much older Babylonian myth called Atra-Hasis. That’s also the name of the story’s hero. In the myth, the demi-gods grow weary of the mortals they’ve created out of clay. So they plan on destroying their world with a flood. One of the good gods get wind of the plot. So, he commands the mortal Atra-Hasis to build a big boat out of the wood of his own house. Into this boat will go his family and some animals. They will all survive the deluge. That pagan myth was retold and rewritten in Genesis—but this time, “reconditioned” and conformed to Hebrew faith. Interesting, isn’t it?
Do you remember what God wanted Noah to put into the ark? Opposites. God commanded Noah to put opposites into the ark. Not just the male and female of every animal, but also the clean and the unclean. So, imagine what Yahweh intended to save from destruction: opposites—human/beast, male/female, clean/unclean. There’s an important message in there we Catholics miss out on very often. Whether the authors intended it or not, I read into that a very early affirmation that God does not mind diversity; that, in what we often dismiss and reject as opposites, contradictions, anomalies—God takes care of all of then nevertheless, and for them, God creates order and harmony and redemption.
There’s this Franciscan spiritual guru I love to read, Fr Richard Rohr. My uncle, Willy, is a close follower of his. Uncle Willy was able to attend one of Fr Rohr’s retreats for men in Albuquerque. Uncle Willy said, the major part of the retreat was where Fr Rohr required the men to go out separately into the desert, pick a comfortable spot, and pitch a tent. They were then to draw on the sand a circle of around 10 to 20 feet in diameter—inside of which they were to stay, outside of which they were forbidden from stepping. For a whole day before sundown, these men—who were always in control of everything and everyone in their lives, who always regarded themselves fearless and untroubled, and who always thought they were right and had it all together—were to stay in that circle and do nothing but pray and talk to God, think and talk to themselves and the voices in their heads, and reflect about their lives—boredom, listlessness, and helplessness notwithstanding. If I remember correctly, they were to do this for five days—out to the desert during the day, then back to the retreat house before sundown. Uncle Willy said he thought he was going mad the first 2½ days. But as he finished and looked back at the retreat, he said that the desert had given him the gift to undergo an incredible swath of memories wnd emotions that went with them—anger, loneliness, and regret; joy, laughter, and consolation; fear, reassurance, and hope. He felt imprisoned yet free, dirty yet cleansed, hated yet loved. In the desert, God led him to this deep place where he saw with brutal clarity a deluge of his opposites: his inconsistencies versus his singlemindedness; his righteousness as well as his hypocrisy; his supercilious moral ideals he demanded other people to meet, versus his own wanton self-permissiveness; his passionate desire to be a good husband and father, versus his own brokenness as a son to his tatay who was neither a good father nor husband.
But that’s just five days. Jesus spent 40 days out in the desert. He was among wild beasts, we are told, while the devil tempted and the angels cared for him. He must’ve also come face to face with his own opposites, the forces within him competing for attention. Evil spirit and good spirit must have faded in and faded out of his head—sometimes very distinct from each other, but sometimes, deceptively overlapping. Whereas Jesus was a sinless man, I bet his choices weren’t always crystal clear, nor were they made any easier just because he was Son of God. I bet there were days when he thought, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me. What if I just use my power to quell my enemies?…I am the good shepherd. Why don’t I, right here, right now, just divide the sheep from the goats and get it over with?…I have the words of eternal life, they say. With the same words, I could probably rip my detractors to shreds.” But Jesus always ended up obeying the Father’s will, we know. But it must have left him torn apart at times—the worst of which happened one Thursday night when he finally cried, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup away from me, yet not my will but your will be done.”
It’s getting warmer outside, have you noticed? It will soon feel like a desert again. Maybe Lent could be our desert retreat? We can start with something like this: What do we consider as our interior blessing—a particular strength or talent or capacity we’re sure is God’s personal gift to us? How have we used the gift to draw people closer to God, or make their lives a little easier, a little lighter? Then with brutal honestly, we can recall the times when the blessing became…a curse—when we used it to hurt people whether they know it or not; when we manipulated attention towards ourselves; when we abetted the bad spirit to outgun the good. For have you noticed, dear sisters and brothers, our passion to love is often the same passion with which we hate? That the things we strongly disapprove that people do, we’re equally guilty of doing them ourselves? That we have the gift of words—healing and comforting words, yet with the same eloquence, we slash and burn those we dislike?
Behold, dear sisters and brothers, the desert of opposites within us. Behold the ark of opposites that we are. But God keeps us company in our desert. And this ark, drift that it does, God keeps afloat.