Genesis 6:5-8; 7:1-5, 10 / Mark 8:14-21
Is there a point of no return in the spiritual life? Can we ever come to a place where we find that there is no going back, from which we cannot and will not hear what God has to tell us, however insistently? We might think that there is no such point, no such place. After all, God's mercy is greater than any of our sins, indeed than all of our sins. Moreover, his patience is surely greater and more long-suffering that our stamina, than the force that fuels our rebellion against him.
However, the Scriptures today suggest otherwise. God's decision, rather his judgment of the human race at the time of Noah is quite clearly final, even while the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve remain alive, if not well. His decree is clearly beyond recall; apart from Noah and his family, and those representative pairs of the clean and unclean animals, none will be spared. In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus raises a worry which amounts to the same idea. In response the the disciples confusion over the meaning of "the leaven of the Pharisees" and "the leaven of Herod," and thinking these to be some peculiar way of noting that they were without provisions, Jesus sighs deeply. His concern is this: Are the disciples confused because they do not yet understand (which suggests that they are slow to believe, but may still come to understanding), or is it because their hearts are hardened (and so, by implication, they simply will not understand, or more accurately, like the Pharisees and like Herod, they will to misunderstand)?
Of course, it is spiritually fatal to imagine either or ourselves or of others in this life that we have reached this point, that point when in our hardness we have been passed over, and will no longer see or hear. To imagine so would be the sin of despair, and so would result in the end of charity in the soul. Even so, it is equally dangerous to fall into presumption, to imagine that we can never turn ourselves irrevocably away from God, that because we do not see ourselves as hardened moral monsters, that we don't have anything to worry about.
Today, brothers and sisters, is Shrove Tuesday, and in the midst of the pancakes glistening with butter, syrup, sugar, jam, and spirits, and while we make merry with what may well be our last taste of sweets, meat, and the fruit of the vine or of the grain, it is also a traditional day to go to confession, to be shriven, which is to say forgiven of one's sins. The old wisdom was not that one should use Lent to prepare for a full-bodied confession right at the season's end, but rather that, before the penitential disciplines are upon us, we should free our souls of the sins that still bind us. We are freed by the sacrament so that we might enter Lent more openly, to receive God's words of warning and encouragement more fruitfully, free from any and all presumptions about our virtue, and ready to see with our eyes, hear with our ears and understand with hearts made soft, warm, and receptive to the love of our Lord Jesus Christ.