Consider Noah!

Homily at St Dyfrig’s for the First Sunday of Lent, 2012

Consider Noah!

Noah? For Lent? As soon as we think seriously about the story of Noah, we run into questions. Was there really a great flood that covered the whole Earth, or at least the Middle East, for 40 days? Did God really ask a man called Noah to build an ark? Did the animals really go in two by twosies, the elephants and the kangaroosies?

We easily get distracted by asking the wrong questions. Here’s a better question:

The story of Noah is part of God’s Word. Why has God given us this story?

There’s more to the story of Noah than animals in the ark and a rainbow. May I remind you of the main points?

  • In God’s eyes, Noah is the only good man on earth in a corrupt generation.
  • God warns Noah to build an ark, for himself, his wife, and three sons and their wives.
  • Noah builds the ark out of wood.
  • For a time of forty days, it rains, and there is a longer period of flood water.
  • Three times Noah sends out a dove. First it returns with nothing, then with an olive branch; the third time it flies free.
  • When the ark lands, Noah offers a sacrifice.
  • Then Noah plants a vine and is said to be the first man ever to become drunk!

Some things are worth noticing. The rest of Noah’s family survive the flood not because they deserve it, but because God warns Noah to take them with him. So the whole family – Noah, the only truly good man in God’s eyes, and his family with him – survive God’s punishment by passing through water on a boat made of wood.

St Paul’s words today tell us that Noah helps us to understand the meaning of baptism. Anyone who has been baptised has passed through water and received new life from God. That sounds rather mysterious. But we can easily understand the idea of surviving a flood by being taken on board a wooden boat.

If we look carefully, we see that the story of Noah is a code for the story of Jesus!

  • Noah was the only good man on earth in a corrupt generation; Jesus, as son of God, was the only truly good and perfect man who has ever lived on earth.
  • Noah, using the skills of a carpenter, builds an ark out of wood, and uses it to save his family. Jesus, the son of a carpenter, embraces a cross made of wood and so saves every member of his family – those who do God’s will and are counted as his brothers and sisters.
  • Genesis tells us that when Noah had boarded the ark, God himself closed the door – there was no return. In the garden of Gethsemane, God’s will compels Jesus to embrace the way of the Cross; he refuses to run from his duty, and is quickly arrested, reaching his point of no return, leading inevitably to the Cross.
  • Noah, the good man, journeys on water while saving his corrupt family. Jesus, the one man who never needed to repent, is baptised, passing through water to share in the experience which saves his corrupt family.
  • Noah, his family, and the animals are all saved by the ark. When Jesus dies on the cross, he himself is raised to everlasting life, he makes it possible for sinful human beings to inherit eternal life – St Paul says that as soon as he died, Jesus preached to the souls of the corrupt humans of Noah’s day, and brought them to heaven – and in some mysterious way, the whole universe is made good again in God’s sight, plans, animals, the whole of creation.

Well, so what? What’s this to us in Pontypridd in 2012? It’s about remembering who we are. Lent is a special time to remember what it means to be dedicated to God in baptism. It sounds rather abstract to say that our souls have been given entry tickets to heaven because Jesus died on a cross of wood. But we can well understand what it means to have avoided death by drowning because somebody else provided a lifeboat, and we climbed on board.

I’m sure that anyone who survived the wreck of the Costa Concordia will be profoundly grateful that lifeboats were available, and will have deep feelings of gratitude to those members of the crew and the emergency services who worked to get them safely to dry land. Over the years, those strong feelings of thankfulness will fade, but might be rekindled at an annual survivors’ reunion. Easter is OUR survivor’s reunion – we were saved by Jesus, who took us aboard the lifeboat called the Cross, and once again we gather to give thanks. The 40 days of Lent, like Noah’s 40 days in the rain, are given to us as an in-between time: What was my life like before I embarked on this 40-day voyage, when I was in the company of people whose values fell short of God’s values? How am I to prepare for my landing, when I start living my life in a new way at Easter? For on Easter weekend, each one of us will renew our commitment to God made once in baptism.

Now, a word to our candidates preparing for baptism this Easter season. Noah’s “baptism” in rain lasted 40 days. In a certain way, your baptism will also take 40 days and begins this weekend. You will be presented to our Archbishop, and that your status will no longer be that of “catechumen” or “learner”. Instead you will be one of the “elect”, chosen to become a member of Christ’s church.

During this time, you can expect to be tempted. Jesus was tested for 40 days in the wilderness. Imagine Noah shut in a boat with only 7 people for company and a whole menagerie of animals to care for! Not easy. You may also find special pressures at work in this season to dissuade you from taking the final step into God’s family. Resist! For God allows those he loves, to be tested, to prove their love for Him.

When the rain stopped, Noah sent out the dove three times. First it flew over the water and returned – reminding us that at Creation, the Holy Spirit hovered over the face of the water. On its second journey, it returned with olive wood – reminding us that the Spirit descended on Jesus giving him the strength to embrace the wood of the cross and fulfil his mission as Prince of Peace. When it was sent out the third time, it did not return. On the day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit descended on the followers of Jesus, giving them courage to travel far and wide as the members of Christ’s body at work throughout the world. You also will receive this spirit.

When the ark arrived on dry land, Noah got out and offered a sacrifice of animals. When you are baptised in the Easter season, you also will take part in a sacrifice – because you will receive Holy Communion for the first time. Each weekend in this church, we make present the sacrifice of Jesus, the Lamb of God, who died on the Cross. Once you are baptised, you will share in the sacrifice meal, which will connect you to God in the deepest way possible – you will receive the body of Jesus, hidden in the form of bread and wine, into your own body. God loves you and invites you to share in his banquet.

As part of his new life after the flood, Noah grew a vine and enjoyed the wine. At the Last Supper, Jesus drank three of the four traditional cups of wine, but told his disciples that he would not drink the final cup until they were with him in the Kingdom of Heaven. We know that through baptism, we have been rescued by the wood of the Cross not only to take part in Mass on Earth, but at the end of our life to be united with Christ in enjoying the banquet of new wine which lasts forever in Heaven. You are preparing for heaven by being baptised on Earth.

Finally, a word to all members of the parish. I would like to propose to you a prayer exercise for this week of Lent. Take ten minutes in a quiet place to imagine that you are one of the passengers on the Ark. Not Noah himself, but someone who has been rescued because you are a member of Noah’s family. God has rescued you from everlasting death, not because you deserve it, but because you belong to the Carpenter who is Good.

  • What are your feelings about the life that God has rescued you from?
  • What are your feelings about the 40-day journey you are now on, with all its restrictions?
  • What are your hopes and resolutions for the new life when you come to dry land?

You have been saved by wood, through water. Enter into this prayer experience and you will be made ready for the new life of Easter.

Consider Noah! And consider God’s love in telling you this story, to help you understand the message of the Cross.

Temptation and Compromise

When Jesus was tempted in the wilderness, he faced some very clear-cut choices. Should he worship Satan? No, of course not. Should he show off his divinity by leaping into space and expecting angels to appear and catch him? Not part of his mission. As for turning stones into bread, he knew he had come to the wilderness to keep a fast. “Just one little loaf” would be the thin end of the wedge.

The choices we are faced with in daily life are more complex. Jesus told his followers that they were to live in the world without being of the world, and this is the dilemma which we all face, as we apply our Catholic values to our daily life. It becomes a special headache when we consider the problem of giving support to charity.

Every charity, of course, believes itself to be doing good work. But from our Catholic point of view, not all charity projects are good. We would respectfully disagree with those charities whose core purpose is to champion the rights of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans-gender community. Out of love for neighbour, we would never want a member of that community to be disadvantaged or attacked simply because of who they are; but out of love for God, and God’s commandments, we cannot endorse the behaviours which they would promote as acceptable and even “good”.

Medical research charities seek to help people whose lives are greatly afflicted. For the most part, we can give two-and-a-half cheers for any charity simply because it seeks to heal the sick. But before we can offer a ringing endorsement of its work, there are two questions we should ask. Does this charity fund destructive research on human embryos? And does it advocate access to euthanasia for those who are seriously ill? As Catholics, we are called to build up a culture which values human life for its own sake, and resist the mindset which sees death as a solution, or a human embryo as material to be used as the means to an end.

Other charities specialise in supporting the peoples of poorer countries in finding ways out of poverty –which is why we call them “development” agencies. Again, we can give two-and-a-half cheers as soon as we know that a charity is trying to help some of our poorest neighbours on this planet. But with many aid agencies, a small portion of their work involves making contraceptive advice and medicine available alongside other medical projects. The Catholic Church is not against the principle of limiting one’s family to a responsible size, but has consistently held that medical and technical means of doing so are not pleasing to God.

If there are charities which are not 100% compatible with our Catholic values, why would we ever consider giving to them?

Giving to charity isn’t something we only do when we sit down to plan our budget for the coming year and set up a Direct Debit. We are confronted by requests because of the relationships we are involved in. Perhaps a colleague at work is doing a sponsored run. Or someone is shaking a bucket in our direction as we exit the supermarket. What should influence our decision about whether or not to support a particular charity?

If a charity’s work is entirely, or significantly, devoted to directions which go against our Catholic values, then the issue is clear cut – we cannot make a gift towards its work in good conscience. So we cannot, for example, support Stonewall, whose core purpose is promoting gay rights, nor the UK Stem Cell Foundation, many of whose projects use material from human embryos. (There are two kinds of stem cells – the Church has no special objection to the use of adult stem cells harvested from living and consenting donors.)

But what about a charity which does a great deal of work which we would applaud, mixed with a small proportion of work which we consider “off limits”? There is a moral principle called “double effect” which says that it is permissible to do good deeds even though we can foresee some undesirable consequences, as long as the good we are doing directly is important and far outweighs the negative. There is also a moral principle which says that we must never co-operate with evil. Catholic theology applies the concept of “evil” to individual moral acts, not to individual human beings or organisations. We believe that all human beings are good by their very nature – it says so in Genesis – but not all the things a human being does is good. An abortionist is not an “evil person”. He or she is a human being – an intrinsically good person who has chosen to commit evil acts.

Similarly with organisations – if they fund one or two things with which we disagree, that does not make the charity an “evil organisation”. It makes it a well-meaning group which does great good and a small amount of evil.

When we, as Catholics, are confronted with demands to support charities which are mixed blessings, there are two questions we need to ask ourselves: Does this charity do so much good that I can contribute despite the “evil” elements? And am I giving a good witness to what I stand for, if I choose to support it? These will help guide you in answering the question. And in this kind of grey area, both answers might be acceptable. One person might choose to take a stand and emphasise Catholic principles – another, for friendship’s sake, to offer support to the flawed organisation. Both are acceptable moral choices.

For example… A person was asked to sponsor a workmate doing a sponsored run for a cancer charity, which funded, among many projects, one which used embryonic tissue. My advice was that the charity did enough good work so that the person could legitimately offer sponsorship as an act of friendship, but that the charity could not be promoted through the parish, where the “good” of personal friendship did not apply and there was a real danger of the church seeming to endorse all the research this charity was doing.

Christian Aid

Christian Aid works to alleviate poverty around the world. It acknowledges that it works with, and gives funds to, partner organisations who may provide contraception, or information about abortion. But such projects are not the focus of its work.

Each year, the Pontypridd Christians Together Lenten Lunches (one of which we host at St Dyfrig’s) collect money for Christian Aid. Each year, the parish newsletter at St Dyfrig’s promotes Christian Aid Week by inviting you to take part in shop-front or door-to-door collections.

One of the values we stand for as Catholics is that of co-operating with other followers of Jesus Christ to do good works together, and Christian Aid is the primary charity of the other main denominations in the UK. My judgement, as the responsible priest, is that the importance of working with other churches is so great, and the amount of problematic work done by Christian Aid is so small, that we should support it in this way.

But I would totally respect any Catholic who declined to give to Christian Aid on the grounds that a small proportion of any funds given might go to work we disapprove of. We do not take a parish retiring collection in Christian Aid week because we already have two annual collections for CAFOD, which support the developing world with an explicitly Catholic ethos.


I have recently been approached by the cancer charity Tenovus, who wish to hold a concert on our church property. Before agreeing, I asked for – and received – written assurance that Tenovus have not funded research on the human embryo, have no plans to do so, and have no formal stance for or against euathanasia.

Tenovus then explained that the choir – which includes cancer survivors who have banded together to sing as a means of mutual support – would be so large they would like to sing in the Church rather than the Hall. I was initially reluctant to allow this, as it is important that the Church remains a House of Worship and nothing inappropriate takes place there. But given the size of the choir, and the particular reason this choir exists, I eventually agreed to its use as long as we could have a conversation about the kind of music that was suitable to be sung in God’s House. Perhaps this will result in a playlist which I am not 100% comfortable with, but it will allow me to have a conversation with non-Christians about our moral values and why we hold them. A compromise, yes, but one balancing love of neighbour and of God.


Twice I have recently been asked if the Hall might be hired for boxing or for a self-defence class. Some forms of martial arts are steeped in the spirituality of Eastern religions, but this was not the case with the current application. Boxing or self-defence skills train participants to control their violent tendencies, and this is a good thing – Jesus also wishes us to learn to restrain our anger.

Jesus also teaches us to “turn the other cheek”. Some Christians interpret this as a call to total pacifism. Others see it as a call to respond without anger when we are attacked for our religious faith, or in the context of a personal relationship, not a prohibition against tackling someone who attempts to steal your handbag or wallet. Catholic morality allows the fighting of a just war, so self defence is not wrong in and of itself.

The Buck Stops Here

I’ve given the examples above in order to share with you the difficult moral balancing act I have to perform – not only as an individual person with a conscience, but as the guardian of what takes place on church property, with the implicit blessing of the Catholic Church, and in some cases, for promotion in the parish newsletter.

Yes, I could have made different decisions in each of these cases. But as Catholics, we must be alert to the difference between things we should do (because they are clearly required by our Catholic morals) and things we could do (because we judge in a particular case that taking a stand is more appropriate than entering a dialogue). We must recognise that there are grey areas where both choices are legitimate for us as Catholics. And one of the duties that falls on my shoulders as priest-in-charge is that the buck stops here. I might consult the parish steering group, or my spiritual director – but I am the one who must give an account to God of the choices I make on behalf of this parish. Please pray for me, that I stay faithful to God, and am attentive to the whisper of the Holy Spirit who may prompt me in one direction or another in each particular case.