Rainbows, Deserts, Wild Beasts, and Angels

On the Sundays of Lent, Bondings 2.0 will feature reflections by New Ways Ministry staff members. The liturgical readings for the First Sunday of Lent are: Genesis 9:8-15; Psalm 25:4-9; 1 Peter 3: 18-22; Mark 1:12-15.   You can access the texts of these readings by clicking here.

I have always liked that the rainbow flag is a strong symbol of LGBT equality and justice. It is such a colorful, happy symbol.  And it is strongly connected to how Christians view the symbolic power of the rainbow. In today’s first reading, God tells Noah that the rainbow will serve as the symbol of God’s never-ending love for us.  God says:

“I set my bow in the clouds to serve as a sign
of the covenant between me and the earth.
When I bring clouds over the earth,
and the bow appears in the clouds,
I will recall the covenant I have made
between me and you and all living beings,
so that the waters shall never again become a flood
to destroy all mortal beings.”

Rainbows help me to remember that no matter what hardship or tragedy or injustice we experience, God will be with us, loving us, and helping us find new ways to continue in spite of negative forces.

Today’s gospel reading has a similar message.  It is a short passage, only three verses long, but filled with an important message.  In two sentences, St. Mark packs a profound theological lesson:

“The Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert,
and he remained in the desert for forty days,
tempted by Satan.
He was among wild beasts,
and the angels ministered to him.”

In his book, Following in the Footsteps of Jesus, Year B, José Pagola, one of my favorite Scripture interpreters, provides the following insight into these lines:

“According to the evangelist, ‘the Spirit sent him out into the desert.”  He doesn’t go on his own initiative.  The Spirit sends him out until he finds himself in the desert. Success is not going to come easily to him. Rather, trials, insecurity, and dangers await him. But the desert is at the same time the best place to listen to the voice of God in silence and solitude. . . .

“Jesus is tempted by Satan in the desert. . . . He will appear no more in the whole Gospel of Mark, but Jesus sees him in all those who want to lead him astray from his mission, including Peter.

“The brief account finishes with two strongly contrasting images: Jesus ‘was among wild animals,’ but ‘angels attended to him.’  The wild animals, the most dangerous in all creation, evoke the dangers that will always threaten Jesus and his plan.  Angels, the best beings in creation, evoke the nearness of God who blesses, takes care of, and protects Jesus and his mission.”

If you are an LGBT person or someone who works for LGBT equality, then you are most likely someone who has great familiarity with being in the desert.  Work for justice and equality is often a painful, desolate, discouraging experience, and one where temptations to give up, give in, or just becomes cynical and bitter abound.

I take hope from Pagola’s reading of this passage, however. Like all people, I have experienced “the desert” several times in my life.  I usually think of it as a negative experience, but Pagola’s interpretation reminds me that the desert can be a place not just of isolation, suffering, and temptation, but a place where God speaks to us most intimately.  It’s a place where we can find our deepest, truest selves.  A place where we can experience God’s care even though we may feel that we are being attacked.

I’ve been working in LGBT ministry and advocacy for over 20 years.  While I’ve seen some remarkable advances both in civil society and the church, it can also sometimes feel like the desert as I ask “How long, O God, before justice is made real?”   What I need to do is to turn that experience around.  Instead of focusing on what is not happening, I should instead focus on what God is doing for me in this desert time, how I am growing personally, how I am meeting incredible people, and how God is building something new–usually something so new that I often don’t recognize it.

While LGBT equality is not a reality in the Catholic Church, I am thankful for the desert experiences I’ve had because they have helped me see that God is working in mysterious ways in my life and in the life of the Church.  While we still have much work to do to educate the hierarchy, in the past 40 years, we have seen incredible growth in support from the laity.  More importantly, we have seen that in the desert, the laity have had to become more mature Christians than they might otherwise have been.  Sometimes the exile or desert experience that progressive Catholics have felt over the past few years has forced them to rely on prayer, community, and the development of their individual consciences.  In doing so, they have actually formed the model of the church that they want to see.  Without the desert experience, this would not have happened.

The rainbow is a wonderful sign of God’s love, and it is easy to see how its beauty and diversity of color symbolize divine love.  I think we also have to start to see that the desert can also be a sign of God’s love, if we look at it as an opportunity for listening to God’s word more intimately.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

7 Responses to Rainbows, Deserts, Wild Beasts, and Angels

  1. Carolyn Shalhoub says:

    Wow, Frank, you nailed it. I have often marveled at how you and Sr. Janeene can keep at it. Things are looking up right now and I believe that the work of you and so many have tilled the rocky ground so that what is growing now can flourish. Great reflection and I hope you are having a wonderful trip.

  2. […] Rainbows, Deserts, Wild Beasts, and Angels (Bondings 2.0) […]

  3. Susanne Cassidy says:

    amen! And thank you frank for your beautiful inspiring message; from a voice in the desert. susanne

  4. Rosa G. Manriquez, IHM says:

    Your reflection is beautiful, Frank. After reading the column and the scripture, I am reminded of Hagar and Ismael who were driven into the wilderness. As the mother of lesbian daughters, I can identify with her. I find great hope in this Genesis wilderness story where we see angels ministering to those who live in the margins. And it is because of these stories, I never give up hope for justice and recognition of my children’s humanity and place in God’s Creation.

  5. Thank you, Francis, for the beautiful way you bring these Scripture images to life. One last thought: Jesus proclaimed, “Repent, and believe in the Gospel.” What is this gospel, this good news? What might be something we have to ‘repent’ of? If we back up one passage from this Gospel, we see Jesus being baptized by John the Baptist. Then, on coming up from the water, he hears, “You are my beloved son, in you I am well pleased.” Can we grasp that the stunning Good News that Jesus began to proclaim and show in his actions is that WE are all called to experience ourselves as beloved children of God. So this Lent, let us repent of the image of God as mean, angry, jealous of his creatures, judging and unforgiving. God, our Father-Mother, is dying to claim/reclaim us as his beloved sons and daughters. Jesus was crucified for showing us this revelation he received. How would our lives change if we let this love in? The rainbow–our sign–is God’s proclamation to us that he will never forget this covenant with ourselves and the whole earth. Have a blessed Lent.

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