Homily for the First Sunday of Lent
Orientation Mass for Newman College, University of Melbourne
Readings: Genesis 9:8-15; Psalm 24: 4-6, 7b-9; 1 Peter 3:18-22; Mark 1:12-15
21 February 2021
Once again we have come out of lockdown here in Melbourne. And we’ve started our 40-day Lenten observance hearing Jesus proclaim at the beginning of Mark’s Gospel: “The time has come and the Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe the Good News.” Today we welcome all of you who are new students and your families. On Friday evening, for the first time in a year, we sat down to a fairly formal dinner in our dining room here at Newman. For the first time in a year, the choir sang the Grace from the balcony. It was very moving for all of us. The ordinary and routine was back. It was graced and special. It’s not just that absence makes the heart grow fonder. It was as if the flood was over and we saw the rainbow in the sky.
Living through COVID-19 this past year, all of us have come face to face with our mortality and creatureliness. Any of us could be done in by this pesky little virus. But we have also experienced the wonder of human ingenuity with a range of vaccines being developed in under a year. We have also enjoyed the fruits of living in community where most individuals have been prepared to undergo restrictions, foregoing their daily freedoms, trusting the experts and their politicians. Imagine the breakdown of law and order which could have occurred if people simply assessed what they could get away with, pursuing only their own self-interest.
In today’s first reading from the Book of Genesis, we hear the story of Noah after the flood. The waters of the flood have subsided. A rainbow appears in the sky. And Yahweh addresses Noah and his sons. The rainbow is a sure sign that the flooding rains have passed. The scripture scholar Richard Clifford says that “a rainbow is a natural sign that a rainstorm, no matter how heavy, is coming to an end and will not result in a universal flood.” 
The flood had come upon the earth when Yahweh in desperation had declared to Noah: “I have decided that the end has come for all living things, for the earth is full of lawlessness because of human beings. So I am now about to destroy the earth.” (Genesis 6:13) In his encyclical Laudato Si, Pope Francis says, “These ancient stories, full of symbolism, bear witness to a conviction which we today share, that everything is interconnected, and that genuine care for our own lives and our relationships with nature is inseparable from fraternity, justice and faithfulness to others.” With his typically folksy touch, Francis goes on to say, “Although ‘the wickedness of man was great in the earth’ (Genesis 6:5) and the Lord ‘was sorry that he had made man on the earth’ (Genesis 6:6), nonetheless, through Noah, who remained innocent and just, God decided to open a path of salvation. In this way, he gave humanity the chance of a new beginning. All it takes is one good person to restore hope!”
Imagine what we could do with a college full of such persons here at Newman this year. We pray that all our students will help to restore hope in our broken world. We Jesuits internationally have formulated a list of goals, or what we slightly pretentiously call universal apostolic preferences. Why use one word when you can use three? Two of those preferences are particularly germane to our mission here at Newman: ‘to accompany young people in creation of a hope-filled future and to collaborate in care for our common home’. We welcome those of you who are new to this community recommending these preferences to you.
John Scullion, the scripture scholar who lived here at Newman College for many years, wrote a commentary on Genesis in which he does the intricate maths and tells us that “Noah was most likely 40 days building the ark and making preparations”, that the rains then fell for 40 days, and that Noah was in the ark for 365 days exactly. Before the flood, Yahweh announced that he would make a covenant with Noah. “In the biblical perspective, the flood is clearly a punishment inflicted by God on the human race because it had revolted against him…He carries through the punishment, saves, accepts the sacrifice that acknowledges his supremacy, promises security for the future, and renews the blessing that he gave at creation.” After the flood, Yahweh establishes his covenant with Noah and his descendants as well as ‘every living creature’ on the earth. The word ‘covenant’ appears seven times as Yahweh declares this new covenant. The numbers seven and 40 are always a sure sign that big things are happening in the Old Testament, and that Yahweh is at work in creation and in the story. The rainbow in the sky is a sign of the Covenant between Yahweh and the whole of creation.
The Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz, who was not a religious person, once wrote: “The scriptures constitute the common good of believers, agnostics and atheists.” The Australian writer Clive James, also an unbeliever, in his splendid Cultural Amnesia takes up the same theme saying, “That the Bible, for Western civilisation, is the common good of believers and non-believers ought to be obvious, but for some reason it is a truth hard to see except when that same civilisation is at the point of collapse.” Perhaps COVID-19, followed by a global recession, has helped to focus our minds. Compared with those like Milosz who witnessed the destruction of their cities and societies during World War II, Clive James says we are “blessed with a more comfortable set of ruins” seemingly with less to be afraid of. According to James, “we can persuade ourselves that history is a linear development, in which even the eternal can become outdated, and be safely forgotten.”
Those of you who are new to the college are amongst the first generation for many years who have not been able to presume that your lot will be better than that of your parents. We may be emerging from a slice of history which looked deceptively like a linear development. There is no guarantee that things are always getting better. There is no guarantee that the next generation is always more moral than those who went before. We do believe that there are things that ultimately matter, that there are truths that do abide through the ages, and that our present perspective is always assisted by keeping an eye on the infinite horizon – what we call ‘the eternal’.
Whether religious or not, whether Christian or not, whether Catholic or not, each of us is called to embrace the eternal, assured by the rainbow in the sky that our creatureliness matters ultimately, that our human ingenuity can be harnessed for the good, and that community and the common good can provide the fertile soil for our individual self-realisation and flourishing. Welcome to Newman College. Caring for our common home, let’s accompany each other to a hope-filled future.
Fr Frank Brennan SJ is the Rector of Newman College, Melbourne, the Distinguished Fellow of the P M Glynn Institute, Australian Catholic University, and the former CEO of Catholic Social Services Australia (CSSA).
 Richard Clifford, ‘Genesis’, in The Paulist Biblical Commentary, 2018, p. 11 at p. 28
 Pope Francis, Laudato Si ##70-1
 John Scullion, Genesis, The Liturgical Press, 1992, p. 71
 Ibid, p. 84
 Quoted by Clive James, Cultural Amnesia, Picador, 2007, p. 486
 Ibid, pp. 486-7
 Ibid, p.488