Year B Lent 1
Noah’s Ark seems like this quaint little story we all learned about from our children’s Bible at bedtime. Noah stands on top of a tiny boat while elephants and giraffes crowd around him, and over their heads is little rainbow. I personally have a lot of questions, like where did the dinosaurs live on the boat, why did he bother saving weird animals like jellyfish, that sort of thing.
Noah’s Ark, though, fits seamlessly into the grand salvation story of the Scriptures, and the early Christians were fascinated by it. St. Peter says that the boat floating through the waters prefigures baptism. The Ark itself is often compared to the Church. For instance, St. Hilary writes, “The Church is the Ark into which Jesus enters with all His faithful followers.” He then goes on to even explain the raven that Noah sends away from the boat, saying, “The sinner leaves the Church as the raven once left the Ark.” St. Augustine says, “The contemporaries of Noah would not believe in his warnings as he was building the Ark, and thus they became frightful examples for all posterity. Christ our God is now building His Church as the Ark of Salvation, and is calling upon all men to enter it.”
These early Scripture interpreters went into a genuinely mind-boggling amount of detail, even down to explaining that the wood of the Ark represents the cross, the door in the side represents the wound in the side of Christ, the way in which the very ratios of the dimensions are reminiscent of the human body, six times longer than it is wide, how there is only one Ark and one Church by which to be saved. Carpenters, you might be interested to learn that the Ark used no nails to hold it together, only pitch. St. Augustine sees in this the way in which the Church is held together at its most fundamental level by the love of Christ. You may have noticed that Noah didn’t close the door after everyone was safely aboard, it was God himself who closed it. In the same way, Our Lord takes care that we are safe and secure in the heart of the Church.
Suffice it to say, I’m fairly confident that Noah’s Ark represents the Church. Just to make this a bit more confusing, though, we have to remember that Noah’s Ark overlaps thematically with the Ark of Covenant that Moses later made. Both are repositories of God’s saving grace, the Ark of the Old Covenant even more explicitly so, and further, remember that the Blessed Virgin Mary has become the Ark of the New Covenant. Each subsequent Ark is a development as God’s plan becomes more and more clear. To say that Mary is the Ark aligns perfectly with our understanding that Mary is the Church, so in joining the Church we are not entering an institution but rather into a relationship with our spiritual mother.
Noah’s Ark only carried eight people. Everyone else chose to remain outside, the only people willing to accept the invitation are those willing to accept the precepts of the Church.
People often ask me why I entered the Church. Typically my answer is to stutter a bit, mumble about Jesuit poets or something, and then say that I have no clue how to explain it. I will say this, it wasn’t the abstract result of an intellectual process. I did read the Catechism and ask lots of questions, but what was the driving factor? It was the strength of Catholic culture. I’ve heard many others say the same. The Church is a megalith, unyielding and majestic, frustrating and mysterious, but because of the strength of who she is, she is never irrelevant. Her culture is so comprehensive that she causes a huge amount of angst out there among non-Catholics, but that is exactly what is so great about her. She is so much bigger on the inside even than she seems from the outside, and once you’re on the inside what had seemed so imposing turns out to be all tenderness and beauty.
I came to faith because of beauty, which may sound whimsical but I can explain. I know I’m always quoting poetry at you, but that’s because the Church herself is a poem. Poetry is the language of might be and what ought to be, the language of hope. It reaches through the cracks in the universe and reveals a world of immeasurable breadth and depth, that reaches out and grapples with the very essence of the divine. The priest Romano Guardini says that the poetic language of the Church is a “truly mighty style.” Benedict XVI says that beauty is like an arrow that wounds the soul. For instance the other night I was here praying and the choir was practicing. They sang the most beautiful lullaby to the crucified Lord that hearing it almost hurt, but that wound of beauty is good because it forces us to lift up our eyes and not be satisfied with life as usual. The flooding sea is all around. We are in the Ark and destined to sail forever.
The Ark is a depository of life and culture, our saving grace in a world that is riven with sin and strife. The work of protecting Catholic culture is the work of saints. Vatican II emphasized the importance of beauty and culture to our worship and faith, because they are intimately connected with truth. The beauty and culture of the Church is her truth. Reading good books, Gregorian chant, creating a home full of prayer and joyful celebration of saints, fasting meat on Fridays and fish frys and, I guess, eating spaghetti with your fish because that’s just what you do, all that stuff – that is why I entered the Ark.
This is the culture that built western civilization, created the scientific revolution, and produced the greatest works of art in the history of mankind. Fulton Sheen says the world is busy destroying everything we have built, but the Church has kept the negatives and when the moment comes we will be ready to reprint the photos.
Most of all, here in the Ark is the living presence of God. All of our culture is built up on the simple truth that this world is created by him and every beautiful thing is a reflection of his beauty, most of all the human soul.
O Lord, keep us in your Ark and welcome us into your kingdom