The Ark of the Church

First Sunday of Advent. Is 2:1-5; Ps 122:1-9; Rom 13:11-14; Mt 24:37-44

Why does the Gospel for the first Sunday of Advent begin with Jesus' explanation of the story of the Noah's ark? Advent is the time of preparation for the coming of Christ: the remembrance of his First Coming when he was born in Bethlehem, and the anticipation of his Second Coming at the end of time. In today's Gospel, Jesus says that Advent is like the days of Noah before the coming of the flood. He says to his disciples, “As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man” (Mt 24:37). But why should the story of this ancient apocalypse be a suitable herald for the coming of the Messiah? More importantly for us, how can we prepare well for Christ's coming, so that we are like Noah and not like the other people who were swept away by the flood?

I do not propose, in this brief homily, to discuss the historical interpretation of the story of Noah, although I note in passing that a remarkable number of ancient cultures have preserved stories about a catastrophic flood: a well-known example is the story of Atlantis in Plato's Timaeus. Often in these stories a small number of people are saved in obedience to divine inspiration, as in the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh. Even in terms of unaided human reason, the sheer number and diversity of such ancient flood stories strongly supports some historical basis for such an event. However, for us in Advent the important aspect of the story of Noah is Jesus' interpretation. The Book of Genesis tells us that the human race had become wicked, but we are not told what they were doing wrong. In today's Gospel, Jesus fills in some of the background details. He states that these people “were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage.” Now there is something very odd about this explanation. Eating, drinking and marrying are good things: they are all natural goods created by God. What, then, were the people of Noah's time doing wrong, or what were they failing to do, that would lead to the sudden destruction of their civilization?

The answer to this question is, I think, twofold. The first answer is that God made us principally that we would know Him and love Him and one day be happy with Him forever. Those who are exclusively preoccupied with secondary goods, such as food and drink, are tragic in God's sight. The situation is rather like children who are only interested in the Christmas presents a parent has given, but do not want to spend time with their parents, and enjoy a personal relationship with their own father and mother. Now it is clear that the people of Noah's time did not sin by eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage. We know this because Noah also married, he presumably ate and drank, and because the Ark saved many of the other goods that God had created. What was distinct about Noah is that he did not live for these goods alone. His life was centered on his personal relationship with God, shown by his supernatural act of faith in building the Ark. Because of his faith, his other goods were saved as well, when the rest of the people lost them who had cared for nothing else.

The second answer to the question of why the people of Noah's time were destroyed can be drawn from today's Second Reading. St Paul warns the Romans to “put on the armor of light ... put on Jesus Christ.” When people neglect their personal relationship with God, they do not merely revert to a naturally good state. Those who leave Christ out of their lives, those who leave out the bridge uniting us to God, do not then go back to enjoying the natural goods of this world in a well-ordered life. Even before the coming of the physical flood, when the light of Christ is absent, a spiritual darkness floods the human heart: a flood of disorder and chaos, of drunkenness, promiscuity, rivalry, jealousy and so on. So although we are not told explicitly about these other deeds, if the people in Noah's time were neglecting the knowledge and love of God, their personal relationship with God, they would also have suffered from these disorders as well.

What then are the lessons for us? How can we be like Noah and prepare well for Christ's coming? Well, we too have an Ark build out of wood. Our Ark is the Church, and she is built out of the wood of Christ's cross. Our Ark is steered by the new Noah, the fisherman Peter, whose present day successor, Pope Benedict XVI, is still steering the Church through the many storms of history. This Ark has a huge capacity, holding the Faithful of every nation, race, tribe and language. The Ark also stores and nurtures many of the created goods of this world: many of the goods of Western civilization, its philosophy, theology, art, literature, laws, music, universities and even its science, are demonstrably rooted in Catholic Christianity. How then do we enter the Ark and remain in the Ark? Well Jesus warns us that being in the Ark or out of the Ark is a spiritual state more than a physical location. On the Day of Judgment, he warns us that physical proximity will not determine our eternal destiny, “two men will be out in the field; one will be taken, and one will be left.” We remain in spiritual communion with the Church in practical, everyday ways. Our principal means are the sacraments, especially Confession and Communion. However, it is also essential that we develop and maintain a habit of daily prayer. If we put God first in our lives then we lose nothing: all that we do will ultimately be well-ordered and fruitful. 

May God keep us safely in the Ark of the Church, whatever the storms of this life, and bring us one day safely to the shore of his eternal Kingdom.

Fr. Andrew Pinsent, St. Ambrose Church, 2nd December 2007

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