Ars praedicandi: First Sunday of Lent, Cycle B, Ed Foley

by Fr. Edward Foley, Capuchin

The story of Noah’s ark seems an endlessly fascinating one,
even millennia after the presumed great flood.
A quick search of,
the world’s largest library catalog,
renders over 6000 books, theses or manuscripts
on the topic
from fiction to non-fiction;
from braille books to eBooks.

It is especially the search for vestiges of the vessel
that has captured our imaginations:
not just of contemporary explorers and scientists,
but even of ancient commentators and ecclesiastics.

From before the birth of Christ,
authors and adventurers
from Josephus to Marco Polo
have speculated about the final resting place of the Ark,
with consensus locating those remains in eastern Turkey.

Early in the 19th-century, explorers were climbing Mt Ararat
claiming to have found wooden remnants of the ark. [1]
No such claim has ever been verified
and so the quest continues,
as documented by endless broadcasts
about the “Search for Noah’s Ark.”

While physical evidence of the ark
is unlikely ever to be found,
searching for the meaning in this epic story
is both more promising and even necessary.
Why else would the lectionary position it as the 1st reading
on this opening Sunday of Lent
unless the church believed that there was some key wisdom
essential not only to the Lenten journey before us,
but for the voyage of life?

Facile wisdom drawn from the story abounds.
One of the more famous mimics Robert Fulghum’s popular
“All I really need to know I learned in kindergarten,”
now rendered as
“All I really need to know I learned from Noah’s ark” [2] includes:
• Noah didn’t wait for his ship to come in, he built one.
• Plan ahead. It wasn’t raining when Noah built the ark.

In the spirit of ageless Tom Brady, another says:
• Stay fit. When you’re 500 years old someone might ask you to do something really big.

And my favorite
• Remember, the ark was built by amateurs and the Titanic was built by professionals!

It may be easy to dismiss the easy nuggets of wisdom here,
like the frequent comment: we are all in this ship together.
On the other hand, there is something compelling
about arks or boats or ships as metaphors for community.
The ancient Greek philosopher Plato (d. 347 BCE)
mused about democracy as a ship in need of proper steering,
and his image of the “ship of state”
has been invoked countless times over the millennia,
not only by politicians or revolutionaries,
but often by artists and composers,
musicians and lyricists such as Leonard Cohen,
whose song “Democracy” includes the stirring lines

Sail on, Sail on
O mighty ship of State.
To the shores of need
Past the reefs of greed
Through the squalls of hate. [3]

Unfortunately, multiple forms of government,
including our own democracy,
have not always lived up to that stirring image
and rather seem to collapse into another metaphor from Plato
that of a “ship of fools.”

For Plato, the ship of fools is plagued by a dysfunctional crew,
virtually none of whom are capable of captaining the vessel,
scheming and fighting amongst themselves
in attempts to claim control of a ship they cannot manage.

That image of a ship of fools has also
found resonance down the centuries,
and musicians from the Grateful Dead to Pink Floyd
and, my favorite,
the Norwegian band Motopsycho
have spun out lyrics about people and societies
and yes, governments and religions,
who reveal themselves to be a ship of fools.

While it is an easy epithet to toss at others,
the Christian community needs to be on its guard
and not be flippant about too easily pointing fingers
at capsizing governments
and social movements run aground,
for we too have long been referenced as a ship,
sometimes christened the Barque of Peter.

Multiple Christian authors as far back as the 2nd Century
have imaged the baptized on deck
with the onetime fisherman turned apostles,
sometimes rudderless, the hull of our humility breached,
too often rendering us a foolish vessel of ambition,
even abuse,
looking nothing like an ark of salvation
crafted in the image of Christ.

In 1959 the respected author Katherine Anne Porter
published her long-awaited novel, The Ship of Fools,
about a disparate group of passengers
fleeing various experiences of disappointment
and embarking on a voyage to pre-World War II Germany.
Each was seeking their own utopia
as they head toward a world of prejudice, racism, and evil,
rehearsing their own simmering hatreds along the way
as they isolate themselves from fellow passengers.

Porter brilliantly captures this instinct to isolate,
even in the confines of a ship,
through an internal dialogue of a singular passenger,
a one Mrs. Threadwell. Porter writes:

Mrs. Treadwell moved away again, from the threat of human nearness, of feeling. If she stayed to listen, she knew she would weaken little by little, she would warm up in spite of herself, perhaps in the end identify herself with the other, take on his griefs and wrongs, and if it came to that, feel finally guilty as if she herself had caused them; yes, and he would believe it too, and blame her freely. It had happened too often, could she not learn at last? All of it was no good, neither for confidant nor listener. There was no cure, no comfort, tears change nothing and words can never get at the truth. No, don’t tell me any more about yourself, I am not listening, you cannot force my attention. I don’t want to know you, and I will not know you. Don’t try to come nearer. [4]

That attitude was ultimately symbolized in the disembarking
of this carnival of passengers
from Porter’s imaginary ship of fools,
each of whom went off in search of their own utopia
in a Europe on the brink of destruction
and unimagined atrocities.

Noah with his wife, three sons, and three daughters-in-law
were history’s first documentable quarantined family.
And that quarantine was long.
For while it rained for 40 days and 40 nights,
Genesis reports that waters rose on the earth for 150 days,
a period 10 times beyond recommendations of the CDC
for sequestering with the coronavirus.

While I have not had to quarantine,
friends who have tell me that 14, or 10,
or even 7 days is a long time
to be closed off from human contact
and segregated with family.

Interestingly enough, the word quarantine itself
is derived from the Latin word for 40, quadraginta.

It is a number continuously used in the Bible,
by some reckonings over 150 times, including:
the number of days Moses spent on Sinai,
the years Israelites wandered in the desert,
and the days Jesus spent fasting
before his public ministry.

The number is not employed
as some statistical calculation,
but a metaphorical indicator of a long time
a period of sufficient length for reflection,
for self-examination,
and ultimately for transformation.

As we embark upon this Lenten season,
a metaphorical period of spiritual quarantine,
today’s liturgy preemptively asks what we will be like
as individuals baptized, a Church, and even a society
when this quarantine is over
and we disembark from Lent?

Will we leave our ship of fools like those of Porter’s novel
inoculated against the needs of others
like the fictional Mrs. Threadwell
more distanced from the chance neighbor,
more cynical about our own families or communities,
and more insulated from the pain and suffering of others?

Or will this renewed journey on the ark of salvation,
our annual trek into the desert with Jesus,
prod us to be like the family of Noah
who left their isolation
with gratitude for the beauty of the land
and the enduring beauty of humanity,
making their first act upon disembarkment one of sacrifice,
so renewing God’s covenant with humankind
and all of creation?

Even more dramatically, the first thing Jesus does
when leaving his desert quarantine
is to proclaim the good news, call disciples, cast out a demon,
and heal multitudes,
drawing dangerously close to the marginalized,
the unclean and the outcast.

Eventually, he too will offer a sacrifice
but instead of immolating some animal,
he instead surrenders himself on the altar of Golgotha.

In so doing he forges a newly wrought covenant
between God and all of creation
and calls forth a new covenant from his followers as well
in our embrace of the stranger, the other, the enemy.

I don’t know if you heard, but recently there was a meeting of devils
who work this part of the county,
concerned that not enough people from this parish were going to hell.

So they had a strategy meeting.
Neither I nor the pastor were invited.
But from all reports one little devil suggested
trying to convince folk that there was no heaven.
But senior devil noted that the Cubs had already
won the World Series, transporting so many fans
from sports hell to heaven,
so that wasn’t going to work.

Another little devil suggested trying to convince folk
that there was no hell.
But a senior devil reminded them all
that these are people who lived through
one of the snowiest Chicago winters on record
in the middle of a pandemic,
so that wasn’t going to work either.

Finally, one sneaky little devil suggested
if we can’t convince them there is no heaven
and if we can’t convince them that there is no hell,
maybe we can convince them that there is no hurry?

It’s easy to think
“you know I have 40 years to be transformed,
or 40 days ahead in Lent,
or maybe 40 minutes before this Mass is over,
and I can get back to the important stuff..
or 40 seconds before this unending sermon is finally over!”

But Jesus demurs
and pointedly minds us that the time of God’s reign is at hand.
The moment for transformation
into a people of the new covenant is now.
The hour to begin the healing and the bridgebuilding
between fractious political divisions
and racial animosities
that tear at the fabric of our society is now.

Let us pray that this time we don’t miss the boat
but eagerly board Peter’s Barque
as together we steer with determination and grace
to God’s own justice kingdom,
through Christ our Lord.

[4] Katherine Anne Porter. Ship of Fools (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1962), p. 142

One comment

  1. Brilliant. Thanks once again, Ed, for crafting a message that captures the power of our faith, that calls us to conversion, that inspires us to live out the good news in our own lives.

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