Day 2: God's Covenant with Noah. Great Lent Retreat Online

24 березня 2020

Day 2: Tuesday 24 March 2020

God's Covenant with Noah: Remembering beauty of creation
and the setting of the sun every evening

Isaiah 25:1–9, Genesis 9:8–17, Proverbs 12:8–22

Yesterday we began our series of reflections on the Book of Genesis with the reading from Vespers last night, Genesis 8, when Noah and his family left the Ark after being shut inside for a whole year to be saved from the flood that destroyed every living thing on the earth. Today’s reading tells us about how God made a covenant with Noah and promised him that there would never be such a flood again and that he would send a sign to Noah and all his descendants, to remind them of this promise and covenant.

Before we continue, let me give you a few pointers about where you can find all these readings and texts from the Holy Scriptures and the Liturgy of the Hours. During the time of Great Lent, they are all found in the Triodion, which exists in Greek, Church Slavonic, Ukrainian, English, and numerous other languages. If you don’t have a copy of this book at home, then there are various websites online where you can find these texts. If you pray in Ukrainian, there is the wonderful resource of the Patriarchal Youth Commission of the Ukrainian Greco-Catholic Church called DyvenSvit (https://calendar.dyvensvit.org). If you pray in English, there is a website called Royal Doors prepared by Fr. Michael Winn and his collaborators in Canada (https://www.royaldoors.net). The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America also has an online chapel where you can find all these texts in English (https://www.goarch.org/chapel), as well as in the original Klingon Greek (http://glt.goarch.org). There are also helpful resources that provide commentaries on the Word of God, such as The Bible and the Holy Fathers for Orthodox, edited by Joanna Manley, or the series Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, published by InterVarsity Press. With these resources, you can fill your day at home with moments of prayer. And perhaps instead of including marathons of Seinfeld episodes or binge watching Netflix, we can sprinkle our day with moments of prayer and meditating upon the scripture, entering into the inner-most chamber of our heart, we can strengthen our daily routine of communion with God and our fellow Christians through the Word of God.

The reading from Genesis for today (Genesis 9:8–17) is as follows:

Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, [9] "Behold, I establish my covenant with you and your descendants after you, [10] and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the cattle, and every beast of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. [11] I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth." [12] And God said, "This is the sign of the covenant which I make between me and you ... [13] I set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. [14] When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, [15] I will remember my covenant which is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. ..." [17] God said to Noah, "This is the sign of the covenant which I have established between me and all flesh that is upon the earth." (Genesis 9:8–17)

The Covenant that God makes with Noah is a renewal of the partnership that God made with mankind from the time of the creation of Adam and Eve and their life together in Paradise: God is Lord of creation but invites His chosen people to care for this creation together with Him. Their life together is a kind of synergy, with God as the Lord, and women and men as co-operators working together as stewards of creation.

St. John Chrysostom comments that the first step of establishing this covenant with Noah was to grant him and his descendants peace and assurance:

God’s purpose, therefore, was to eliminate all apprehension from Noah’s thinking and for him to be quite assured that this would not happen again. He said, remember, “Just as I brought on the deluge out of love, so as to put a stop to their wickedness and prevent their going to further extremes, so in this case too it is out of my love that I promise never to do it again, so that you may live free of all dread and in this way see your present life to its close.” Hence he said, “Behold, I make my covenant,” that is, I form an agreement. Just as in human affairs when someone makes a promise he forms an agreement and gives a firm guarantee, so too the good Lord said, “Behold, I make my covenant.” God did not say that this massive disaster might come again to those who sin. Rather he said, “Behold, I make my covenant with you and your offspring after you.” See the Lord’s loving kindness: not only with your generation, he says, do I form my agreement, but also in regard to all those coming after you I give this firm guarantee (St. John Chrysostom, Homilies on Genesis 28.4)

St. Ephrem the Syrian points out that God says this to Noah and his descendants directly, three times, so that they all might hear, and no one would doubt God’s assurance (St. Ephrem the Syrian, Commentary on Genesis 6.13.2). God says it three times, like parents with their children, making sure they heard what was told them.

The symbol of God’s covenant is a rainbow (the Greek word used here is simply “bow”, τόξον) — a beautiful sign that attracts our attention every time it appears in the sky, no matter if we are young or old. This sign of nature still causes wonder and amazement within us. By its very nature, the natural phenomenon of the rainbow shows us hope because it is through the brightness of the light shining from the sun that the water — which, in itself is good, but too much of it had previously caused destruction and death due to the surge of waves and deluge during the flood — reflects, refracts, and disperses the light of the sun. As a result, both the light and the water work together to be transformed into something unusual and wonderful, revealing a full spectrum of colours in God’s beautiful creation. We learn a lesson from this sign of God’s covenant with us: that even the things that we think may hurt us or cause us harm can be transfigured by the light of God. Things we feared can be illumined by God’s grace and bring us true joy.

Our natural response to this phenomenon is amazement and wonder. It is not uncommon for us, when we encounter a rainbow, to stop what we are doing and simply say “wow!” and express the amazement of a child. In my own childhood, I can remember quite a few times when driving on the highway with my parents through a storm, the sky cleared, the sun appeared, and a beautiful rainbow appeared before us. My parents stopped the car on the side of the road and we all got out in order to marvel at its beauty.

Now, as ever, it is important for us not just to marvel at this beauty when we are reminded now and then of God’s covenant with us, but to care for the beauty of the earth always. God entrusted us with this earth when Noah and his family left the Ark. God told them: “Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you; and as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything. ... [7] ... be fruitful and multiply, bring forth abundantly on the earth and multiply in it..." (Genesis 9:3,7), as we heard yesterday.

Part of our covenant with God is faithfulness to our role as stewards of God’s creation. Our stewardship of the environment requires of us that we work together and cooperate with God, in synergy. That means that we cannot expect to be negligent and leave all the problems for God to solve. We cannot act like a teenager, expecting his parents to clean up his mess after him. We must do our part and take responsibility for our actions throughout our lives. In a hymn from a new service composed in Greece to pray for the environment, a sticheron sung at Matins reminds us of this responsibility and collaboration with God in caring for the environment. The text of the sticheron is as follows:

As Master of creation do not take from us the treasures of your providence, we beg, Lover of mankind. See our humiliation, Lord, and cleanse creation of polluted winds and noxious contagions and activities, so that, living devoutly and soberly in a pure life, we may be counted worthy of eternal life, as we glorify your great mercy. (Service for the Environment [Ecumenical Patriarchate], Matins, Stichera at the Praises, Glory... Tone 8)

We pray for God to do His part and acknowledge that for us to do our part, we must live a devout, sober, and pure life. In simple terms, this means making little sacrifices in our lives every day, choosing to save material goods by re-using them responsibly, saving energy in our homes and when we travel, loving and caring for our neighbour as we would for ourselves. In this covenant with God, we must throughout our lives learn how to balance our daily lives to make the right choices.

One of the most important choices is to make a constant remembrance of God’s covenant with us. We must consciously choose to renew this covenant every day, by entering into prayer with God. We should start every day with a prayer, end every day with a prayer, and fill our day with little reminders of God’s presence throughout its course.

In order to remember about important encounters or meetings, we often set reminders in our calendars or on our mobile phones so that we don’t miss a meeting or appointment. With our relationship with God, we are often lazy and not as diligent. The Church and its communal prayer helps us to remember to gather together or set aside time for prayer, for our relationship with God. In these days, livestreams of liturgical services on Facebook or YouTube can help us to set aside time to pray and to join in the community’s rhythm of prayer. This also helps us to enter into Communion with the Church and other Christians in our isolation. There are many helpful websites online that provide information on livestreams of church services on the internet, most notably Zhyve TV (https://zhyve.tv) for our Church and Live Liturgy (http://liveliturgy.com/) for many other churches throughout the world and in your time zone.

But even before there were livestreams or mobile phones or even bells and bell towers to call us to the church to pray, there was the beauty of God’s creation in nature that reminded us of God’s presence. Apart from the rainbow, which is a reminder and sign of God’s covenant with us, there are also other signs of God’s presence and love that mark our day. One that is just as beautiful and amazing, is a sunset, which takes place every day without fail, so long as the earth continues to rotate around the sun. The setting of the sun is a marker that reminds us of God’s presence and reminds us to re-establish our relationship with God through prayer.

Fr. Alexander Schmemann has written about the experience and rediscovery of God’s creation that we remember every day at Vespers, the service we pray as a Church every evening, every day of the year, as long as the sun sets upon the earth. Fr. Alexander writes:

“It is at the end, in the evening of each day that God sees His creation as good. And thus, it is at the end of the day that the Church begins the liturgy of time’s sanctification.

“We come to church, we who are in the world having lived through many hours filled, as usual, with work and rest, suffering and joy, hatred and love. Men died and men were born. For some it was the happiest day of their life, a day to be remembered forever. And for some others it brought the end of all their hopes, the destruction of their very soul. And the whole day is now here – unique, irreversible, irreparable. It is gone, but its results, its fruits will shape the next day, for what we have done once remains forever.” (Schmemann, For the Life of the World, p. 60)

This time of Lent, in our isolation from the world, is a perfect opportunity to rediscover the daily prayer of the Church in the Liturgy of the Hours. We can do this in our homes, in our families, in our Arks, by entering with our mind into the depths of our heart. After the usual prayers to begin every liturgical prayer in the Church, where we call upon the Holy Spirit in the prayer “Heavenly King...,” and ask the Holy Trinity to cleanse and wash us from the dirt that we have come into contact with and accumulated throughout the previous hours, and we call upon God as “our Father,” we pray Psalm 103, the psalm of creation:

Bless the Lord, O my soul! You are very great O Lord, my God!
Clothed in pomp and brilliance; arrayed with light as with a cloak.
Stretching out the sky as a tent-cloth, covering Your lofty halls with water.
You make the clouds Your conveyance. You surge on the wings of the wind.
You make spirits Your messengers, and flaming fires Your attendants...

How wonderful are God’s works! He is Lord of Creation, but is not distant or aloof, He delights in the beauty of the world and nature that He created. Unlike His first coming in humility, He clothes Himself in light, foreshadowing the Second Coming of Christ, according to St. Cyril of Jerusalem (St. Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures, 15.1). For this, we bless Him, giving Him thanks for everything, for having blessed us with life. The psalm continues:

...You settle the earth on its firm foundation; it shall stand unmoved from age to age.
The abyss covers it like a garment; waters stand over the mountains. [...]
You have set up a boundary not to be passed; they shall never return to cover the earth. [...]
They shall give drink to the beasts of the field; wild asses will seek them to quench their thirst. [...]
...the earth shall be fed with the fruit of Your works.
You make green pastures for the cattle * and food-plants for the service of all...

God remembers His promise — and we remind Him of this in our prayer as well. When we act as stewards of creation, then all of creation works together for the service of all. The psalm goes on:

...So that bread may be brought forth from the earth, * and wine that gladdens the heart of man.
So that oil may put a gleam upon his face; * and that bread may strengthen the heart of all....

St. Cyril of Jerusalem sees in this passage a foreshadowing of the Eucharist, the Bread and the Wine, the Body and Blood of Christ, that gladdens our hearts and nourish us to the depths of our being (St. Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechesis 22.9). The psalm continues:

...The trees of the plain will be satisfied, * the cedars of Lebanon that he planted.
The sparrows will build their nests in them; * and the herons will call them their home.
To the deer belong high mountains, * to rodents, the shelter of the rocks.
You have made the moon to mark the seasons; * the sun knows the time of its setting.
You establish darkness, and it is night * wherein the forest creatures prowl around.
Young lions roar for their prey, * and call out to God for their meat.
As the sun rises, they will come together, * and lay themselves down in their dens...

We recount to God how awesome His works are and how we are amazed when we sit back and see how it is good and beautiful. Then we thank God for our presence in all of this creation, mentioning the work and labour of humans in this psalm of creation:

...Man will go out to his labour * and work until eventide.
How great are Your works, O Lord, * in wisdom You have wrought them all...

We also thank God for being part of this creation and His divine plan, allowing us to work and see the fruit of our labours. Origen reminds us that God has a plan for everything, even if we do not understand it immediately (Against Celsus 4.75). The psalm continues with a narration of the presence of humans in this ideal world:

...The earth is filled with Your creatures; even the wide and open sea itself, * within it there are countless creeping things, living beings small and large.
Upon it there are ships a-sailing, * and that great beast You made to have fun.
All of them look up to You, * to give them their food in due time.
You provide and they gather up; * You open Your hand and they are full.
You hide Your face and they cringe; * You suspend their breath, and they die and return to their dust.
You send forth Your breath and they live; * You renew the face of the earth.

In these last phrases, we notice something peculiar: the face of the earth is renewed – even after it is already alive – only when God sends His breath – the Holy Spirit. Until the Holy Spirit enters our lives, and every living thing lives and breathes by the Holy Spirit (Antiphon at Sunday and Festal Matins, Tone 4), our life is incomplete. While we live by our own breath, we are feeble beings, dominated by fear and trembling, eventually returning to the dust from which we were created. But when God sends us His Holy Spirit and we receive it with sincerity, then we live fully and are renewed to glorify the Lord and sing His praises as long as we live, And so we continue to sing:

May the Lord’s glory endure forever, * may the Lord rejoice in His works.
He looks upon the earth and makes it quake; * He touches the mountains and they smoke.
I will sing to the Lord as long as I live;* I will praise my God as long as I last.
Would that my thoughts be pleasing to Him, * and I will rejoice in the Lord.
May sinners vanish from the earth, and may the wicked be no more. * Bless the Lord, O my soul!

In this hymn of creation we praise, bless, and glorify God, giving Him thanks for all that He has done. But the greatest gift He has given us is by sending us His Son. For this we give Him even greater thanks, praising Him in song, and singing:

Tranquil Light, of the holy glory of the immortal heavenly, holy blessed Father, O Jesus Christ: as we come upon the sunset, as we see the evening light, we sing to God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. At all times You are worthy of being hymned by joyful voices; O Son of God, You are the giver of life. For this the whole world glorifies You.

Thus, even when the sun sets, we are not afraid. We have the Light that never fades, the Light of the world, the express Image of the Father. To symbolize this luminous presence of God in our lives, even when it is dark outside or we feel sad, gloomy, or lonely, we light all the candles and lamps in church. And if we are praying at home, we can do the same, turning on the lights in our houses and apartments and rooms.

With the comfort and assurance that Christ’s presence brings us, we ask God to continually bless us in the night, even when the lights have dimmed and it is once more dark. We pray:

Make us worthy, O Lord, * to be kept sinless this evening.
Blessed are You, O Lord, the God of our fathers, * and praiseworthy and glorious is Your name for ever. Amen.
May Your mercy, O Lord, be upon us, * who have placed our hope in You.
Blessed are You, O Lord, * teach me Your commandments.
Blessed are You, O Master, * make me understand Your commandments.
Blessed are You, O Holy One, * enlighten me with Your commandments.
O Lord, Your mercy is forever; * despise not the work of Your hands.
To you is due praise; * to You is due a hymn;
To You is glory due, * Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
now and for ever, * and ever. Amen.

Towards the conclusion of Vespers, the priest says this prayer, recalling the history of salvation wrought by God, and asking God to preserve us once more in the coming darkness of the night:

O Lord our God, You lowered the heavens when You came down for the salvation of the human race. Now look upon Your servants and upon Your inheritance; for they have bowed their heads to You, the Judge, both awesome and loving. They do not await human help, but look for Your mercy and are ready to receive Your salvation. Guard them at all times, this evening and tonight, against all enemies, against the devil’s assaults, against vain thoughts and evil dreams....

The priest then exclaims, praising God, in the words we often hear him say in church, even when we do not hear him say this prayer aloud:

May the might of Your kingdom be blessed and exalted, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, now and for ever and ever.

Toward the conclusion of Vespers, we repeat the words of the elder Symeon, when he saw the fulfillment of the promise of the Messiah. He had waited his whole life for this moment and now saw God’s promise before his eyes – a babe forty days old, perhaps not exactly as he imagined it. But when we go into our hearts to hear God’s voice, when we are illumined by God’s Light, then our eyes can also see that which we might have missed if we didn’t take the time to stop and look in wonder. And so we conclude Vespers with the words of St. Symeon:

Now, O Master, You have kept Your promise; let Your servant go in peace. With my own eyes, I have seen the salvation which You have prepared in the sight of every people: a Light to reveal You to the gentiles and the glory of Your people, Israel! (Luke 2:29–32)

I urge all of you at home to pray these prayers both in your families and on your own, every day this week. Even when there is no quarantine or social distancing and isolation, remember the good things that God has done for us, every time we see a rainbow after a storm or the setting of the sun in the evening.

Let us conclude with a prayer from Psalm 131, a psalm we pray almost every day at Vespers during the weekdays of Lent, which reminds us not to let the sun set on the end of our day until we remember God and prepare a place to worship him, until we find a place for Him in our heart:

Remember, O Lord, David and all his meekness.
How he made an oath unto the Lord, and vowed unto the God of Jacob:
I shall not go into the dwelling of my house, I shall not ascend upon the bed of my couch,
I shall not give sleep to mine eyes, nor slumber to mine eyelids, nor rest to my temples,
Until I find a place for the Lord, a habitation for the God of Jacob... (Psalm 131:1–5)

Lord, make us worthy that at the end of the forty days of the Fast, we may go forth into Your tabernacles and worship at the place where Your feet have stood. Glory to Your precious Cross, O Lord! Amen.

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