A Celestial Rain of Mercy

Genesis 7:11-8:3

Having seen all the preparations for the flood, today we see how the deluge finally occurs, wiping out all those who had rejected the offer of salvation. But we also see God’s tender care for Noah and his family: He ensures that they are safely shut into the ark and, when the flood is over, He remembers Noah and causes the waters to subside.

This passage is again full of symbolism. As we have seen, the flood prefigures the cleansing waters of baptism and we see here how this period of forty days prefigures the forty days of Great Lent. In the early Church Lent developed as a period of preparation for baptism, during which candidates for baptism received instruction and prepared themselves by fasting for the baptism they would receive at Pascha. Saint Maximus of Turin writes that,

In a kind of mysterious image of Quadragesima [Lent], this inundation of the earth refers not so much to a flood as to baptism. This was clearly a baptism in which the wickedness of sinners was removed and Noah’s righteousness preserved. For this reason, then, the Lord has given us forty days now as well in imitation of that time, so that this number of days, while the heavens are opened, a celestial rain of mercy might pour upon us and, with the flood, the water of the saving washing might enlighten us in baptism and – as was the case then – the wickedness of our sins might be quenched in us by the streams of water and the righteousness of our virtues preserved. For the very same thing is at issue with regard to Noah and in our own day: Baptism is a flood to the sinner and a consecration to the faithful; by the Lord’s washing, righteousness is preserved and unrighteousness is destroyed.

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A Reading from the Book of Genesis 7:11-8:3:
In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, in the second month, on the seventeenth day of the month, on that day all the fountains of the great deep burst forth, and the windows of the heavens were opened. And rain fell upon the earth forty days and forty nights. On the very same day Noah and his sons, Shem and Ham and Japheth, and Noah’s wife and the three wives of his sons with them entered the ark, they and every beast according to its kind, and all the cattle according to their kinds, and every creeping thing that creeps on the earth according to its kind, and every bird according to its kind, every bird of every sort. They went into the ark with Noah, two and two of all flesh in which there was the breath of life. And they that entered, male and female of all flesh, went in as God had commanded him; and the LORD shut him in.

The flood continued forty days upon the earth; and the waters increased, and bore up the ark, and it rose high above the earth. The waters prevailed and increased greatly upon the earth; and the ark floated on the face of the waters. And the waters prevailed so mightily upon the earth that all the high mountains under the whole heaven were covered; the waters prevailed above the mountains, covering them fifteen cubits deep. And all flesh died that moved upon the earth, birds, cattle, beasts, all swarming creatures that swarm upon the earth, and every man; everything on the dry land in whose nostrils was the breath of life died. He blotted out every living thing that was upon the face of the ground, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the air; they were blotted out from the earth. Only Noah was left, and those that were with him in the ark. And the waters prevailed upon the earth a hundred and fifty days. But God remembered Noah and all the beasts and all the cattle that were with him in the ark. And God made a wind blow over the earth, and the waters subsided; the fountains of the deep and the windows of the heavens were closed, the rain from the heavens was restrained, and the waters receded from the earth continually. At the end of a hundred and fifty days the waters had abated.

As in the Days of Noah

Genesis 7:6-9

We see today how Noah and his family follow God’s instructions and take refuge in the ark. The Fathers see Noah as prefiguring Jesus Christ, the wood of the ark as prefiguring the wood of the Cross, and the ark itself as prefiguring the Church. Saint Augustine writes,

Christ was also represented in Noah, and the world in that ark. For why were all living creatures shut up in that ark to signify all the nations? For God did not lack the capability of creating anew every species of living things… Was not Noah a holy man, who alone in the whole human race together with his whole house deserved to be delivered from the flood? And is not the Church prefigured by Noah and his sons? They escape the flood, with wood (which symbolises the Cross) carrying them.

Just as Noah’s family found salvation by cleaving to the wood of the ark, so we find salvation by cleaving to the wood of the Cross. And just as they are sheltered from turbulence in the ark, so the Church provides us with refuge on our journey of salvation.

However, we need to remain vigilant. Not everyone who saw Noah building the ark realised what he was doing or heeded the warnings of the flood. Saint Cyril of Alexandria refers to Jesus’ words in Saint Luke’s Gospel (17: 26-30) when he writes,

And to show that He will appear unexpectedly, and with no man knowing it, and the end of the world come, He says, that the end shall be as it was in the days of Noah and Lot. For they were eating, He says, and drinking, and were taking wives, and being made the wives of men; they were selling and buying, and building; but the coming of the waters destroyed the one, while the others were the pray and food of brimstone and fire. What, therefore, is signified by this? That He requires us always to be watchful, and ready to make our defence before the tribunal of God.

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A Reading from the Book of Genesis 7:6-9:
Noah was six hundred years old when the flood of waters came upon the earth. And Noah and his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives with him went into the ark, to escape the waters of the flood. Of clean animals, and of animals that are not clean, and of birds, and of everything that creeps on the ground, two and two, male and female, went into the ark with Noah, as God had commanded Noah.

All are Invited

Genesis 7:1-5

Today we see how God instructs Noah to take his family into the ark, together with both the clean and the unclean animals. This passage is full of symbolism. By encouraging them to ‘Go into the ark,’ God is encouraging the righteous to seek the truth, or, as Saint Ambrose of Milan puts it,

‘Go into,’ that is, go into yourself, into your mind, in the ruling part of your soul. Salvation is there, the rudder is there; outside the deluge rages, outside there is danger. In truth, if you have been inside, you are safe outside too, because when the mind is the straightforward guide of the self, the thoughts are righteous, the actions are righteous. If no vice obscures the mind, the thoughts are trustworthy.

Moreover, the clean and unclean animals that the ark receives symbolise both the clean and unclean members of the Church. The ark symbolises the Church, which is not intended to be an elitist club, but a place where all people are invited to seek salvation. Saint Augustine writes,

Let us recognise that the ark prefigured the Church. Let us be the clean beasts in it. Yet let us not refuse to allow the unclean ones to be carried in it with us until the end of the deluge. They were together in the ark, but they were not equally pleasing to the Lord as a savour of sacrifice, for after the deluge, Noah offered sacrifice to God of the clean, not of the unclean. But the ark was not on that account abandoned before the time by any of the clean because of the unclean.

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A Reading from the Book of Genesis 7:1-5:
Then the LORD said to Noah, “Go into the ark, you and all your household, for I have seen that you are righteous before me in this generation. Take with you seven pairs of all clean animals, the male and his mate; and a pair of the animals that are not clean, the male and his mate; and seven pairs of the birds of the air also, male and female, to keep their kind alive upon the face of all the earth. For in seven days I will send rain upon the earth forty days and forty nights; and every living thing that I have made I will blot out from the face of the ground.” And Noah did all that the LORD had commanded him.

The Ark of Salvation

Genesis 6:9-22

Today we see more evidence of the corruption of humanity, and of how this grieves God. This corruption is expressed in violence, indicating that human life has lost its value as created in the Image of God. God desires to blot out this evil, but He cannot bring Himself to destroy humanity entirely. Instead, He decides to purify the world by means of the flood. Saint John of Damascus comments,

From the beginning, ‘the spirit of God moved over the waters,’ and over and again Scripture testifies to the fact that water is purifying. It was with water that God washed away the sin of the world in the time of Noah.

The Fathers teach us that the ark prefigures the Church. Just was we are purified in the waters of baptism, so the Church is also seen as the ark of salvation, which provides us with safety and support on our journey of salvation. Just as all the different kinds of animals entered the ark with Noah and his family, so too people will come from all the corners of the earth to enter the Church. And just as the ark provided a tranquil oasis in a surrounding sea of violence, so the Church is intended to be a place where all can live together in harmony and peace. Saint Ephrem the Syrian writes,

On that same day elephants came from the east, apes and peacocks approached from the south, other animals gathered from the west, and still others hastened to come from the north. Lions came from the jungles, and wild beasts arrived from their lairs. Deer and wild asses came from their lands and the mountain beasts gathered from their mountains.

When those of that generation gathered to see this novel sight, it was not to repent but rather to amuse themselves. Then in their very presence the lions began to enter the ark, and the bulls, with no fear, hurried in right on their heels to seek shelter with the lions. The wolves and the lambs entered together, and the hawks and the sparrows together with the doves and the eagles.

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A Reading from the Book of Genesis 6:9-22:
These are the generations of Noah. Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation; Noah walked with God. And Noah had three sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth. Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence. And God saw the earth, and behold, it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted their way upon the earth. And God said to Noah, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh; for the earth is filled with violence through them; behold, I will destroy them with the earth. Make yourself an ark of gopher wood; make rooms in the ark, and cover it inside and out with pitch. This is how you are to make it: the length of the ark three hundred cubits, its breadth fifty cubits, and its height thirty cubits. Make a roof for the ark, and finish it to a cubit above; and set the door of the ark in its side; make it with lower, second, and third decks. For behold, I will bring a flood of waters upon the earth, to destroy all flesh in which is the breath of life from under heaven; everything that is on the earth shall die. But I will establish my covenant with you; and you shall come into the ark, you, your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives with you. And of every living thing of all flesh, you shall bring two of every sort into the ark, to keep them alive with you; they shall be male and female. Of the birds according to their kinds, and of the animals according to their kinds, of every creeping thing of the ground according to its kind, two of every sort shall come in to you, to keep them alive. Also take with you every sort of food that is eaten, and store it up; and it shall serve as food for you and for them.” Noah did this; he did all that God commanded him.

Your Sins are Forgiven

Mark 2:1-12
Sunday of Saint Gregory Palamas

Today, on the Sunday of Saint Gregory Palamas, we hear Saint Mark’s account of the healing of a paralytic man. We are told how this man was brought to Jesus by his friends and, because of the crowds in the house where Jesus was, had to be lowered into the house through the roof. We are told that Jesus Christ responded to the faith of the man’s friends by telling the paralytic that his sins were forgiven – something that angered the scribes, for it is only God who can forgive sins – and later instructing him to get up and walk.

As we continue on our Lenten journey, the Church gives us this reading to remind us that we are all sick and in need of healing. The entrance of sin into the world, and the loss of Paradise which we were reminded of at the beginning of the fast, has meant that our human nature has become corrupted and sick. The repentance that we are called to is most fundamentally a means whereby we can be healed by Christ who is the Divine Physician.

It is worth noting that this paralytic man was brought to Jesus Christ by his friends. He was not able to come on his own and it was in response to their faith that Christ healed him. We too need others to help us to approach Christ, to help us to acknowledge our own need for healing, and to cry out to him. We cannot do this on our own. The services of the Church in this Lenten period, and the means to repentance that she offers us, are not there to simply add one more burden to our lives, or to make us feel important about our own ascetical efforts. Rather, they are there to help us to repent, to help us to come to a place where – not only in words but in the depths of our hearts – we realize our own need for healing and so are able to open ourselves to the Divine Physician who longs to heal us.

To those who live in the darkness of sin, Thou hast brought light, O Christ, at this time of abstinence. Show us therefore the glorious day of Thy Passion, so that we may cry to Thee: Arise, O God and have pity on us.

From Matins for the Sunday of St Gregory Palamas

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The Holy Gospel according to Saint Mark 2:1-12:
At that time, Jesus entered Capernaum and it was reported that he was at home. And many were gathered together, so that there was no longer room for them, not even about the door; and he was preaching the word to them. And they came, bringing to him a paralytic carried by four men. And when they could not get near him because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and when they had made an opening, they let down the pallet on which the paralytic lay. And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “My son, your sins are forgiven.” Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, “Why does this man speak thus? It is a blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” And immediately Jesus, perceiving in his spirit that they thus questioned within themselves, said to them, “Why do you question thus in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise, take up your pallet and walk? But that you may know that the Son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins”-he said to the paralytic-“I say to you, rise, take up your pallet and go home.” And he rose, and immediately took up the pallet and went out before them all; so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, “We never saw anything like this!”

A Life Rooted in Prayer

Mark 1:35-44

Today we see how everything that Jesus accomplished – including His preaching, His driving out of demons, and His healing of a leper – is rooted in His life of prayer. It is His intimate union with the Father that enables Him to accomplish all that He does. Saint Cyprian of Carthage writes,

Not by words alone, but also by deeds has God taught us to pray. He Himself prayed frequently and demonstrated what we ought to do by the testimony of His own example. As it is written: ‘But He himself was in retirement in the desert, and in prayer,’ and again, ‘He went out into the mountain to pray and continued all night in prayer to God.’ But if He who was without sin prayed, how much more ought sinners to pray, and if He prayed continually, watching through the whole night with uninterrupted petitions, how much more ought we to lie awake at night in continuing prayer!

Jesus Christ was united to the Father by nature, which means that He naturally shared His life and His power.  We are also called to be united with God and to become by grace what God is by nature. However, if we are to live our lives in His strength, it is essential that we follow Jesus’ example in developing a life of prayer. We need to spend time with Him, withdrawing from all that distracts us from Him. Saint John Cassian describes this when he writes,

We enter into our chamber and shut the door and pray to our Father … removing our hearts inwardly from the din of all thoughts and anxieties. … We pray to the searcher not of words but of hearts … in secret from the heart and fervent mind.

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The Holy Gospel according to Saint Mark 1:35-44:
At that time, Jesus rose and went out to a lonely place, and there he prayed. And Simon and those who were with him pursued him, and they found him and said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” And he said to them, “Let us go on to the next towns, that I may preach there also; for that is why I came out.” And he went throughout all Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and casting out demons. And a leper came to him beseeching him, and kneeling said to him, “If you will, you can make me clean.” Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, “I will; be clean.” And immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. And he sternly charged him, and sent him away at once, and said to him, “See that you say nothing to any one; but go, show yourself to a priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, for a proof to them.”

The Arrogance of the Giants

Genesis 5:32-6:8

Today we see more evidence of the evil that entered the world as a result of the fall. It is not entirely clear who all the figures in this reading refer to. Some of the Fathers see the sons of God as fallen angels, while others see them as the descendants of Cain. However, it is clear that as human beings multiplied the relations between them also became increasingly difficult. Moreover, the ‘Nephilim’ are generally seen as giants, and the description of them suggests a world in which might was right and the powerful ruled the weak. Saint Basil the Great comments,

Strength of arm, swiftness of foot and comeliness of body – the spoils of sickness and the plunder of time – also awakens pride in man, unaware as he is that ‘All flesh is grass and all the glory of man as a flower of the field. The grass is withered and the flower is fallen.’ Such was the arrogance of the giants because of their strength.

If we are honest, then we should recognise that – despite the reference to giants – this is not so far removed from our world in which the powerful exploit the weak and in which brute force is taken more seriously than reason or truth. Saint Ambrose of Milan writes,

Must we really consider as different from giants those men who, even though they are composed of body and soul, despise the most precious good of the soul, that is, the activity of the mind, and show themselves to be imitators of this flesh, as if confirming that they were heirs of their own mother’s foolishness.

This situation grieves God, but again we are not left entirely without hope. In His grief, God wants to blot out humanity, yet we are left with the words that ‘Noah found favour in the eyes of the Lord.’ Once more, there is a faithful remnant who will continue our race and open the way for God’s plan of redemption.

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A Reading from the Book of Genesis 5:32-6:8:
After Noah was five hundred years old, Noah became the father of Shem, Ham, and Japheth. When men began to multiply on the face of the ground, and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that the daughters of men were fair; and they took to wife such of them as they chose. Then the LORD said, “My spirit shall not abide in man for ever, for he is flesh, but his days shall be a hundred and twenty years.” The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of men, and they bore children to them. These were the mighty men that were of old, the men of renown.

The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the LORD was sorry that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the LORD said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the ground, man and beast and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.” But Noah found favour in the eyes of the LORD.