Beyond the Rainbow

Homily to members of Sion Community and LiveStream Viewers on the First Sunday of Lent, Year B.

Where is the rainbow leading us today?

The story of Noah isn’t the most obvious one for the start of Lent. We can see some basic connections – Noah and his family passed through a trial of 40 days – in fact longer, because after the rain stopped it took time for the waters to go down – and they lived with wild animals, as Jesus did in the wilderness. Theirs was quite an extreme form of lockdown – no daily exercise and nowhere to go shopping!

St Peter made another connection. Before Noah’s family boarded the ark, the earth had been populated by wicked human beings who refused to repent of their sins. But when Jesus died on the cross, he went to the afterlife where the souls of the dead were ‘in prison’, waiting for Jesus to win forgiveness for sinners. God could have destroyed all life on earth and created entirely new lines of animals and humans. But God didn’t do that – he gave the existing lines a chance to start again, saved in the Ark and passing through water. In the same way, new Christians are able to start again by passing through baptism. God’s promise not to flood the earth again might be understood as a sign that baptism cannot be repeated; though at Easter we will remember and renew the promises made at our baptism.

The account of Noah, like many chapters in the book of Genesis, is God’s way of teaching us through a story which is easy to remember; it’s not an account of world history. Was there ever a flood which covered the entire surface of planet Earth? The evidence says No. Were there floods in ancient days which wiped out whole civilisations, so that from one tribe’s point of view, their whole world had been destroyed? Most assuredly, Yes. Was there a first rainbow in the history of the world a few thousand years ago? That is hard to believe, unless the universal properties of light or of water were miraculously changed. Rather, God’s Spirit is here inspiring a rebranding exercise, taking what already exists – the rainbow – and charging it with a new meaning.

Where is the rainbow leading us today?

We human beings are also good at re-branding the rainbow. When I was a child it was simply a sign of hope and cheerfulness. Kermit the Frog sang of the “Rainbow Connection” while Judy Garland dreamed of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”. Flowing from God’s promise not to destroy the human race, a rainbow flag was used as a sign of peace. Since 1978, a rainbow flag has taken on a more awkward meaning for Christians, being used as a sign of solidarity with the lesbian and gay community. The Catholic Church agrees that no-one should be discriminated against because of their sexual preferences, while maintaining that God’s plan is that the only appropriate context for sexual intimacy is within the marriage of a man and a woman. During the last 12 months, the rainbow has been rebranded again, as a sign of support for our National Health Service in this time of pandemic.

Rainbows can be a sign of false hope – as in the legend of the crock of gold to be found buried where the rainbow touches earth. Of course, you can never reach the end of the rainbow because it moves to keep its distance from you – rainbows are masters of social distancing! This reminds us that we can be tempted to put our hope in material things which can never really satisfy us.

I was struck by the final words of the first reading – God’s promise never again to “destroy all things of flesh”. There, of course, it means all living creatures – but the Bible never wastes words and I think it is meant to remind us of the other meaning of “flesh” – those bodily instincts which sometimes pull us away from God’s plan for our lives. Anger, our appetite for food and drink, and sexual attraction – all these things can lead us along courses of action which we soon regret. Lent is a time to look anew at the temptations of our flesh and to choose to do what is within our power to destroy them. That may mean joining one of the ‘Anonymous’ 12-Step groups (AA NA GA & SA) or seeking the help of a dieting app. But whatever we need to do, let’s work at it with all our willpower, but never forget, when we succeed and when we fail, to throw ourselves upon the mercy of God.

Where is the rainbow leading us today?

Let’s rediscover the rainbow as a sign of hope. A rainbow can only form when sunshine and rain are present in the same sky. Although the clouds are grey, the sunlight finds a way through and is revealed in all its glory after passing through the raindrops. Without the grey there could be no glory. But on many a grey day I’ve seen a rainbow and realised that the sun must be getting through somewhere, and you can find it if you turn and look.

At the start of Mass, we used a song called Oceans. We’ve called upon God’s spirit to lead us where our ‘trust is without borders’ – giving God permission to take us anywhere, however grey, on our journey to glory. Maybe, like St Peter trying to walk on water, our feet will fail. Maybe we haven’t started Lent so well, or faltered in our chosen discipline already.

It’s OK to start now, or to begin again.

Jesus took Peter’s hand to save him from drowning, and reached out to the souls of sinners who had died throughout human history. Do you not think he will do the same for you? If you’ve never been baptised, what’s stopping you asking for it? If you have been baptised, you can be cleansed anew through the sacrament of confession – and priests are available to do this securely, even in current circumstances.

Where is the rainbow leading us today? It offers a promise that God’s anger will pass and our sins can be forgiven. That is the true gold beyond the rainbow; so as Jesus famously said, repent, and believe the good news!