Historically, Lent is the season for baptismal preparation, reconciliation and reaffirmation of faith. So, rather than making Lent as miserable as possible, instead, let us make it a priority over the next few weeks to review our own commitments to relationships that matter most, with God and within our communities. We call them “covenants”. The Old Testament readings for Lenten Sundays tend to feature the stories of Noah, Abraham, and Moses, all of which symbolically express the foundational concept in our faith: that the divine Creator chooses to become a party in such a covenant -- with us, people.
This week, we read about God’s eternal commitment to sustain all of creation, as represented by the promise made to Noah. While the promise is reassuring, and the symbol of the rainbow is very full and pretty, the story leading up to it is utterly catastrophic: once noble creation goes off the rails, and a violent, vengeful creator saves but a tiny, chosen remnant of it to be able to start over. (I do this sometimes in my paintings!!) I don’t know how Sunday school teachers manage to introduce the children to the narrative without traumatising them for life, but accounts of the universal floods are, of course, found in every culture of the world, even those that do not see much water in their immediate environment (a quick glance at Wikipedia reveals at least 55 versions of universal floods!). Geological evidence, including the stone age structures at the bottom of the Black Sea, supports the possibility that the melting European Ice Age glaciers may have, indeed, engulfed the earth to a great extent, about 7,000 years ago.
So, the roots of these ubiquitous narratives likely extend much further into the prehistoric past than do the civilizations inhabiting the region between the Two Rivers. But, it was the Mesopotanian culture -- the first one to write down its literature on tablets of stone and clay -- that lent its details and unique vocabulary to the story of Noah. We don’t know why the narrative has managed to work its way so well into the collective memories of humankind that it survived the passing down by our Stone and Bronze age ancestors, relatively unchanged. Maybe, it tells of the historical event that shook the presence of humans on earth to the core. Maybe, it expresses in powerful imagery the truths that resonate deeply and universally within our hearts. Most likely, it’s both.
Which Christian hasn’t exclaimed at least once in her life, “I so wish Jesus lived here with us, today”? The flood myths seem to mark a transition between the time when gods walked the earth, and the time of ordinary human existence. The Bible does this, too, but it also points us to the time when God’s unveiled presence will return to this earth, reflecting our longing for the restoration of a close communion with our Creator. And which one of us doesn’t wish for this communion to last for all eternity? Who wouldn’t want to be the chosen hero endowed with the worthiness and endurance to accomplish immortality? You might have heard of the Sumerian king Gilgamesh (2700 BCE?) who searches for the secret to eternal life, and thereby meets a righteous man named Utnapishtim. Well, Utnapishtim had, in fact, been granted immortality. How? Why, having survived the great flood, of course -- together with his family and all the species of the living creatures, and aboard the ship he had built and called “Preserver of Life”.
Have you ever dreamt of a great wave about to engulf you? More than reflecting the lack of control over our lives, such dreams reveal that something needs to die within the unconscious, in order for psychological growth to occur. In the Norse mythology, the world was, in fact, flooded with the blood of a slain giant! Moment by moment, over the course of our earthly lives, the death of self occurs in great floods of emotions: anger, rage, grief, sadness, pain, fear. As these emotions recede, they release our mind to the firmness of a mountain (Urartu or Mount Parnassus, depending on where you are), and reveal the ground ready to be cultivated once more. Isn’t it our greatest hope that when the stormy waters of this life retreat one final time from the tiny vessel of our bodies, and our soul emerges out of the womb (or tomb?) of its ark, we are able to leave something of our presence on this earth that will continue to bear fruit? In the Greek version of the myth, this is accomplished by the hero and his wife casting stones over their shoulders. Noah and his family, and the animals, are commanded to be fruitful and multiply.
In this task of rebuilding, repopulating, recultivating this world and the next, we are guided by the Holy Spirit, who hovers over us today as she did over the waters at the dawn of creation. She is searching for a place to alight upon, like the dove did after the flood or upon Jesus in the Jordan. The dove flies away and returns, and so the perception of God’s presence first overcomes and then deserts us. Sometimes, it calms and cleans the waters of our minds, sometimes it purtubs them, but mostly we are too focused on the waves and the mighty pulls of its currents to even notice the tiny dove.
While another literal flood due to our carelessness with the environment is a matter of “if”, the next metaphorical flood that drowns out all love and reason in our mind is only a matter of when. Yet, humans– for all their bothersome “noise that keeps the gods from sleeping” (in “Gilgamesh”) – are so valuable in God’s eyes that s/he chooses us as the trustworthy parties to a covenant. In the ancient cultures, covenants involved the sacrificial mingling of the blood from both parties. After the flood, the Hindu hero poured butter and sour milk into the retreating sea, and the Greek heroes found out the trick about throwing the stones only after they performed their sacrifice. It is in a sacrifice of self-giving, that the human and divine blood commingles in the very body of Jesus, as it does in us through forgiveness, inconvenient kindness, holding the tongue, not having to be right, rejoicing without jealousy. These sacrifices are the moments of death and rebirth -- the eternal green leaves on the small olive branch that the Holy Spirit will carry and plant for us in the garden of God’s Kingdom.
PS. An interesting resource for cross-cultural comparisons of mythological floods is found here: https://www.pbs.org/independentlens/blog/a-flood-of-myths-and-stories/