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Reclaiming the Rainbow

© Rose Westwood

The covenant of love

If my good friends who are LGBTQ+, will forgive me, I wish to reclaim the rainbow as a sign of covenant.   I had the kind of Sunday-school upbringing that attributes to the rainbow a divine promise of covenant initiated by God.  It is of course the first covenant mentioned in the Bible, and we used to sing about the rainbow being a reminder that God is love.  It is a shame that the story of the Flood and of Noah and the Ark are frequently left behind when we move on in faith, because in the Christian story, the focus is very much on covenant relationships; and especially so at the beginning of Lent.  

If the rainbow should symbolise anything, then it should be the ministry of the Lord Jesus Christ, as the one who embodied a ministry of reconciliation. The promise of the rainbow is about restoration in relationships, and the journey towards the cross speaks of God’s redeeming love through the life and passion of the Lord Jesus Christ.  The rainbow then points to restored relationships between humanity and God, within humanity, and between humanity and the rest of the created order.  A restoration brought about by the life, passion and death of Christ.

I have always intrigued by the way the four gospel writers introduce us to Jesus: two very different birth stories, one reflecting the Genesis account of creation, and then there is Mark.  That master of the terse sound-bite, who by verse nine of his account introduces Jesus, as a man from Nazareth who was being baptised by John. Five verses later and Jesus is beginning his ministry- there is of course the wilderness locus of temptation in between.  It is worth pausing at the beginning of Lent to hear what this gospel writer has to say.  And in this terse gospel, the focus is on a human Jesus, who came not to be served, but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many.  

Can any good thing come from Nazareth? (John 1:46)

So the first thing to notice is the mention of Nazareth: why name this insignificant settlement when the writer is so evidently keeping the word-count brief?  Surely the better-known places would have been more important in the account for the readers; places like the redeveloped cultural centre at Sepphoris. It would be a bit like me telling you the name of the obscure Oxfordshire village in which I live – which you probably haven’t heard of – rather than mentioning the name of the important city nearby – which is known internationally.

Matthew and Luke concentrate on robust genealogy to provide credentials, but Mark chooses to approach this from the place of obscurity.  Because the Jesus he is about to portray moves beyond the expected customs, spending time with tax collectors, touching lepers and a menstruating woman and making time for marginalised people of all kinds.  In other words, the traditional understanding of who is ‘in the community’ has broadened.

A liminal space

Jesus then submits to baptism, where two further significant details are revealed:

Firstly, the heavens are torn apart (1:10) which seems to indicate that this is holy ground, a liminal place where heaven and earth grow strangely close.  There is a significant mirroring of this when the temple curtain is torn apart at the time of Christ’s death in the penultimate chapter (15:38).   Here traditional forms of power and dominion are overthrown, through an act of sacrifice, opening a new way to live and to serve.  

When liminal moments come into our lives, they become times of re-orientation, of finding the new normal and seeking the energising power to move forward.  In short, they can be quite disruptive and unwelcome. As we face Lent this year, we look around at some of our congregations who have bravely struggled on, when perhaps it would be wiser to bring that expression of faith to an end.  When this happens, as naturally as clearing dead wood in the forest, it permits new shoots to make the most of the light and to grow.  It is never intended to be pain-free, yet it is deeply challenging to consider new ways of being God’s people.

A balm

The second detail in the narrative cannot be detached from the first, as it is here that we find consolation amidst the pain: The Spirit descends in blessing.  

He came in semblance of a dove,
with sheltering wings outspread,
the holy balm of peace and love
on each to shed. 
Henriette Auber (1173-1862)

I love that word ‘balm’; I’ve always known it as a soothing cream or ointment for the skin, but it has a second meaning.  ‘A tree which yields a fragrant resinous substance, especially one used in medicine’,  so, says the dictionary. And now I am going to reflect through the days of Lent of another kind of tree, one that is journey’s end for Jesus, and from which emanates a holy balm of peace and love.

It seems to me that this is the kind of grace-language that we so long to hear and feel at present.  But by the very nature of our calling, it is one we are invited to share with those around us and in particular those who suffer.  Those who had hoped for medical intervention to ease pain, which has been delayed; those who lost work or who know that financial-furlough has only put off that grim day; those who sit alone feeling the weariness and loneliness of each long day.  I dare say that the list is endless.

Of Satan, wild beasts and ministering angels

And finally, to the familiar tale of temptation in the wilderness.  Not for Mark the triplet of Satan’s enticement, merely a reminder that this happened when Jesus spent time with wild beasts and ministering angels.  There is no indication of fear of foreboding about the beasts, and the only other place I know that human beings co-exist comfortably with wild animals in scripture is Genesis chapter two, where Adam names the animals.  This new Adam is about to choose a radically different path to that of rebellious humanity (see I Corinthians 15:45-48). And the restoration is underway.

So, how will you choose to spend Lent?

A prayer from the Psalmist

Make me to know your ways, O LORD;
teach me your paths.
Lead me in your truth, and teach me,
for you are the God of my salvation;
for you I wait all day long.
Be mindful of your mercy, O LORD, 
and of your steadfast love,
for they have been from of old.
Do not remember the sins of my youth 
or my transgressions;
according to your steadfast love remember me,
for your goodness' sake, O LORD!
Psalm 25:4-7
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