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First Sunday in Lent (B)

Gn 9:8-15; 1 Pt 3:18-22; Mk 1:12-15

February 26, 2012

On Ash Wednesday, in a rite marking the start of Lent, Christians across the globe heard the words, "Remember, you are dust and to dust you will return" as they were signed with ashes. The ashes - a compound of carbon, the foundational building block of all life - remind us that we are beloved creatures among others in God's creation. But we also heard the words, "Turn away from sin and be faithful to the gospel." As Christians, we are called not only to believe in Christ, but to embody his values, vision, and vitality in today's world. Lent compels us to examine how we are doing in relationship with our God, ourselves, friends, enemies, fellow humans across the globe - especially the poor and marginalized, and all of God's creation.


"Remember, you are dust and to dust you will return . . ."


Today's readings speak of God's initiation of a covenant relationship with all of creation (Gen. 9: 8-15).   Covenant relationship is a constant in salvation history, linking the themes of Creation, Incarnation and Redemption in our Christian faith and life. But we often miss the full impact of this three-fold, all inclusive covenant relationship, because we focus nearly exclusively on human salvation. In Gen 1:28 - God situated humans as creation's caretakers and nurturers, not exploiters and plunders. And after the flood, the Noahic Covenant was made between God and all creatures.[i] All of God's creatures are involved with different kinds of relationships with each other.[ii]


Humans, however, were created forthe service of all living creatures with whom they share an earthly kinship (Gen 2:18-20). Though, humans are to rule over the biota[iii] the sea,[iv] and the land[v] they are ultimately accountable to the Loving Creator God of the covenant. Human "dominion" is relativized by the mocking of their inability to understand nature beyond that which has been domesticated.[vi] Yet plants and animals empathize with human joys and sorrows.[vii] Nature also chastises humans, sympathizes with them, and rejoices in their redemption (Is. 34-35). Notably, the environment deteriorates when people sin; nature in the Hebrew Testament is often God's tool of reward and punishment. Nature's beneficence depends on human morality.   Humans' dominion over nature, then, is strictly conditioned on their moral fitness. Humans who sin bestialize the divine image, and diminish their authentic relationship with nature (Gen 9:7).


Nonetheless, God's grace constantly opens new beginnings, as we find in the Genesis 6 story of the Great Flood. God grieves over the immense human wickedness, and initiates a global ecological disaster. The only humans exempted from the great flood were faithful Noah and his family, "together with animals and creeping things and birds of the air. . . ." (v.7; cf. 1 Pt. 3:18-20).   Noah obediently built an ark and brought in "two of every kind ... to keep them alive" (v. 20). This action exemplified the true covenant relationship between God, humans, and otherkind. Indeed, people act morally when they care for and save their fellow creatures. Thus, after the flood, God first reminded all creatures of their mutual accountability (Gen 9:1-4). Then God established a covenant with Noah's family, their descendants, and all living creatures (vv. 9-11), and sealed it with a "bow in the clouds" (v. 13). We see that human offenses potentially threaten the rest of creation, and human participation in the Noahic covenant partnership, clearly rules out anthropocentricism or the exploitation of nonhuman nature.


"Turn away from sin and be faithful to the gospel. . ."


In the Incarnation, Jesus joined us in the created material world, subjecting himself to the joys and limitations of human life. Like us, Jesus lived in a context dependent on relationships with the entire creation. His teachings would be quite bland, absent any reference to the other-than-human world. In his life, ministry and bodily death and resurrection he deified all of creation. His baptism, and nearly his entire ministry takes place outside, including his forty day stay in the desert "among the wild beasts" (Mk 1:12-15). Jesus knew well that the Earth and all creatures, in their beauty and complexity draw us in, give us joy, inspire us to praise, and lead us to the heart of God.


As baptized Christians we follow the one who came to fulfill the law, not to abolish it (Matt. 5:17). Today, Gospel fidelity includes restoring the place of the Noahic Covenant in our lives. This is especially necessary in light of the "signs of our times." According to the United Nations the four most pressing human global issues are: the lack of sufficient drinkable water;[viii] the lack of adequate food and nutrition; threats to health due to fossil fuel pollution;[ix] and human-caused global warming[x] - all causally related to human abuse of creation.


Church teaching is clear about our obligation to care for God's creation. Number #2415 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church states that the use of the earth's resources is not absolute: "it is limited by concern for the quality of life of the neighbor, including generations to come; it requires a religious respect for the integrity of creation." Indeed, on March 10, 2008, the Apostolic Penitentiary listed ecological offences among the new forms of social sin. In their 2001 pastoral, Global Climate Change: A Plea for Dialogue, Prudence & the Common Good, the U.S. Bishops called for significant lifestyle changes toward arresting human-caused global warming. All of this supports Blessed John Paul II's call for ecological conversion and a life of Christian simplicity - a return to a relational vision and covenantal way of living. [xi]         


As we journey together this Lenten season, let us join in the work of the Catholic Coalition on Climate Change,[xii] Caritas Internationalis,[xiii] the USCCB Environmental Justice Program,[xiv] and the Environmental Responsibility Program of the Catholic Health Association USA[xv] to care for all God's creation, especially our most vulnerable sisters and brothers. Let pray for and with one another: "Your ways, O Lord, make known to me; teach me your paths, Guide me in your truth and teach me, for you are my savior" (Ps. 25: 4-5).


By Dawn Nothwehr, O.S.F., Professor of Catholic Theological Ethics

[i] Everlasting covenant = b'rith `olam.

[ii] Gen 1:30; Ps 104:14-20; Ps 145:16; Ps 147:8-9; Job 38:39-41; Job 39:1-8, 28.

[iii] Gen 2:19

[iv] Job 40:25-32; 41:1-22

[v] Job 40:15-24

[vi] Job 38: 25-27; 39:9-12; Eccles 11:5.

[vii] Joel 1:12; Amos 1:2; Jonah 3:7-7; and Is 14:7-8.  

[xi] See Pope John Paul II, General Audience Address, January 17, 2001, at john_paul_ii/audiences/2001/documents/hf_jp-ii_aud_20010117_en.html, accessed February 18, 2012.