Christian realism about human nature
(Readings: Genesis 9:8-15, 1 Peter 3:18-22; Mark 1:12-15)
Introduction to Mass
Every year in the season of Lent we get the chance to look at ourselves critically, to question ourselves about the level of our commitment to the gospel and to make an effort give up ways of thinking and acting that are inconsistent with the Christian message. So let's begin Mass on this first Sunday in Lent by calling to mind our various failings and weaknesses, and by asking God for his forgiveness and for the grace to change.
The picture conjured up by the story about Noah's Ark in the first reading seems quite cheery for the beginning of Lent with the establishment of a new covenant between Noah and God, the rainbow and so on.
But where the story occurs in the Book of Genesis it's the conclusion to, and the culmination of, a series of disasters, brought about by human beings' sinfulness and their rebellion against God - everything from Adam and Eve eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge, through Cain murdering his brother Abel and the attempt to build the tower of Babel, up to the great flood, where God virtually gives up on the human race and sweeps the whole lot away so as to start again from scratch.
People who interpret all the stories of the Bible literally, as actual historical events, get sidetracked into things like the exact geographical location of the Garden of Eden or about finding the remains of Noah's Ark and so on, but that's missing the main point that the authors of the Book of Genesis were trying to make.
The important thing is that the Old Testament as a whole (not just the Book of Genesis) gives a much more robust view of moral evil and our tendency to do the wrong thing rather than the right thing than perhaps we're used to and comfortable with today.
In our society, the way that most people think about freedom and about our right to make our own choices about how to live our life assumes that we're capable, by ourselves, of making good, healthy, right choices.
Whereas the Bible, on the other hand, if anything assumes the opposite: that without God, and without faith, and without constantly being called back to a sense of our limitations and fallibility, our underlying tendency is to mess things up: for ourselves, for other people and in so many of the things that we turn our hand to.
In other words the whole Bible, from Genesis, through the prophets and down to Jesus himself, sees the need for repentance; and not only sees the need for it but presents it as something which is always urgent and always needing to be repeated.
Of course having made that basic point it's probably important to add that when people are feeling low or depressed, or when they're under pressure or feeling overwhelmed by problems or difficulties, the last thing they need is a lecture on how sinful and corrupt and selfish they are.
There are obviously going to be times in people's lives when too great an emphasis on our need for repentance is going to be counter-productive - in other words it's not going to have the effect of encouraging people to get closer to God, it's going to make them feel that the Christian faith is just another pressure, something that's adding to their general unhappiness.
And in those instances what I think we have to remember is the way that Jesus himself confronted these realities.
Whenever Christ himself talked about human sin, and the need for penitence, it was never with the purpose of making people depressed or giving them a low opinion of themselves. With people who were overburdened with guilt or a sense of their own great sinfulness, or struggling in some way against temptation, Jesus' focus was always on how available and how abundant God's grace and forgiveness were.
These were the people he had come for, he said: the men and women who were only too aware of their lack of perfection and their need to be forgiven. For them, Christ's message was that we can never do anything so bad that we've cut ourselves off from God, once and for all.
The people Jesus had a problem with were those who thought they didn't need to repent, people who congratulated themselves a bit too readily on their virtue, those whose self-esteem was far too high, rather than too low. God's forgiveness was available for them as well, of course, it's just that Christ had much more of an uphill struggle getting them to see their need for it in the first place.
In the context we live in today that's surely one of the main dividing lines between the Christian understanding of what human beings are actually like and what we might call the typical secular attitude.
To people with no faith, or to outsiders who don't understand our concepts about human sin and penance and the way God changes us, the season of Lent, with things like the ritual of marking our foreheads with ash on Ash Wednesday, must seem pointless or at the very least, quaint and slightly ridiculous.
But personally I would always be prepared to argue that our Christian symbols and rituals give a more accurate and a more realistic picture of what human beings are actually like than the non-religious picture. Our symbols and rituals imply a kind of humble acceptance of the fact that we're not capable of making ourselves perfect, that we need God's help to overcome our self-serving tendencies and to foster any kind of progress in our moral and spiritual development.
Those are the two points I would take away from today's liturgy for the first Sunday in Lent. First of all, the important thing isn't the level of virtue or integrity that we achieve by our own efforts. It's whether we're open enough to let God's grace get to work in us.
And the second point is that when we reflect in a more general way about these themes of sin and repentance maybe we can recognise the value of our own Christian approach to human nature, rather than falling too easily into the same way of thinking as the unbelieving majority.