Feb 18, 2018: 1st Sunday of Lent (B)

Introduction

From early times, Lenten preparation for celebrating Easter included recounting the history of salvation, which is exactly what happens in the lectionary readings on the Sundays during Lent.

Through our baptism we embrace the new and eternal covenant with God, which was brought into being by Christ’s death and resurrection. However, ours is not the only covenant God made with man: the covenants of the Old Testament are a great help in understanding what God has done for us in his New Covenant.

That is why, in her preparation for Easter, the Church remembers the covenants of the Old Testament: to remind us of the stages of God’s plan for our redemption and to instruct those to be baptized.

All the first readings on the Sundays of Lent recount episodes from Israel’s history that show God’s graciousness to the people. The passages from the epistles all highlight the role Christ played in our salvation. The Gospel readings reveal Jesus’ glory even in the face of suffering, as well as the compassion and mercy of God.

Although we regard Lent as a season for repentance, any call to repent in the Sunday readings is only indirect. The emphasis in the readings is to assure us how much God has loved us. Their message is: be grateful, trust in God, and if necessary, reform your life.

1st Reading – Genesis 9:8-15

God said to Noah and to his sons with him:
“See, I am now establishing my covenant with you
and your descendants after you
and with every living creature that was with you:
all the birds, and the various tame and wild animals
that were with you and came out of the ark.
I will establish my covenant with you,
that never again shall all bodily creatures be destroyed
by the waters of a flood;
there shall not be another flood to devastate the earth.”
God added:
“This is the sign that I am giving for all ages to come,
of the covenant between me and you
and every living creature with you:
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.”

On this first Sunday in Lent, we reflect back on the covenant God made with Noah.

God said to Noah and to his sons with him: “See, I am now establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you

Note that God initiates the covenantal relationship.  He is fulfilling his promise made in Genesis 6:18-21.

A covenant makes Noah and his descendants part of God’s family and thus under his protection.  The bond is made not only with those present but with those to come in the future as well.

and with every living creature that was with you: all the birds, and the various tame and wild animals that were with you and came out of the ark.

The covenant is made not only with Noah and his family, but with all the living creatures that were in the ark — as well as with the earth itself, as we will see in verse 13.

I will establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all bodily creatures be destroyed by the waters of a flood; there shall not be another flood to devastate the earth.

This particular covenant is promissory, God pledging that never again would unruly waters destroy the world and its inhabitants.

In the ancient Near Eastern world, turbulent water was the symbol of ultimate, even mythological chaos.  A vast and terrorizing flood was viewed as a return to the primordial chaos out of which the world had been created in the first place (Genesis 1:2).  For this reason, this promise from God carries more than meteorological implications: it involves control over primordial chaos.

God added: “This is the sign that I am giving for all ages to come, of the covenant between me and you and every living creature with you: I set my bow in the clouds to serve as a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.

All covenants are perpetual, and they all have a visible sign; in this case, the rainbow.

The ancient stories of creation frequently included some kind of cosmic battle between chaos and a youthful warrior god.  The bow (rainbow) cited here may well have been a reference to the weapon of the divine warrior, who was victorious over the forces of primordial chaos.  This interpretation is supported by several Mesopotamian artifacts depicting a creator-god with arrows in a quiver.  Hanging the bow in the sky would be a sign that the primordial war was over and that all creation could rest secure.

Like the divine rest after creation (Genesis 2:2-3), the act of hanging up the bow heralded the establishment of order in the universe.

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.”

Many ancient Near Eastern civilizations preserved a story of a major flood that completely enveloped the entire world.  The tradition may have originated out of the memory of an actual deluge that was soon regarded as the primordial flood, and the individuals saved from this disaster were considered the few survivors from whom the human race began anew.

2nd Reading – 1 Peter 3:18-22

Beloved:
Christ suffered for sins once,
the righteous for the sake of the unrighteous,
that he might lead you to God.
Put to death in the flesh,
he was brought to life in the Spirit.
In it he also went to preach to the spirits in prison,
who had once been disobedient
while God patiently waited in the days of Noah
during the building of the ark,
in which a few persons, eight in all,
were saved through water.
This prefigured baptism, which saves you now.
It is not a removal of dirt from the body
but an appeal to God for a clear conscience,
through the resurrection of Jesus Christ,
who has gone into heaven
and is at the right hand of God,
with angels, authorities, and powers subject to him.

This first letter of Peter was written around A.D. 64 to Christian communities located in five provinces of Asia Minor.  Several allusions in the letter indicate that these churches were likely comprised mostly of Gentiles, which is supported by the fact that this area was not known as a Jewish land or known to have been heavily settled by Jews.

In our reading today, Peter speaks of the efficacy of Christ’s death.  The reading does not so much develop theological themes as join them together, one leading to the next.

Beloved: Christ suffered for sins once,

The power of Christ’s suffering and death is the principal theme from which all the other themes in this reading derive their meaning.  Christ’s suffering was a sin offering, like the sacrifices of expiation that were offered daily in the temple, with the blood of the victim being sprinkled on the altar.  Unlike the sin offerings that were made repeatedly and expiated only individual guilt, Christ’s sacrifice was effective for all time and for all people, hence the reference to his suffering “once.”

the righteous for the sake of the unrighteous, 

Christ’s suffering was also vicarious; it was endured for others.  Like the suffering servant in Isaiah (Isaiah 53:4-6) this was an innocent man who bore the guilt of the unrighteous.

that he might lead you to God.

Peter emphasizes the purpose for Christ’s suffering: he did all these things so that we might be brought to God and have access to God’s saving grace.

Put to death in the flesh,

An affirmation that Jesus truly died as a human being.

he was brought to life in the spirit.  In it he also went to preach to the spirits in prison,

Physical death did not put an end to Christ’s saving work.  Alive in the Spirit, Christ went to preach salvation to the dead.

Although the reading says He went to “preach” to these souls, it might be better said that he “announced” his triumph.

“Christ descended into hades in order to acquaint the patriarchs and prophets with His redeeming mission.” [Tertullian (between A.D. 208-212), The Soul 55,2]

who had once been disobedient while God patiently waited in the days of Noah during the building of the ark,

The explicit reason for Christ’s preaching in the realm of the dead and the identity of the spirits that were there are not clear; consequently, this passage has spawned a variety of interpretations.  Perhaps these were the sinners who died in the great flood, or angelic powers, hostile to God, who have been overcome by Christ.

However the details are understood, the central point is clear: Christ’s salvific power extends to all, even beyond the confines of this life.

in which a few persons, eight in all, were saved through water.

An apparent reference to Noah and his family.

This prefigured baptism, which saves you now.

The author sees Noah and the flood as a type (or prototype) of Christ and baptism.  Just as Noah saved others from the devastating waters of the flood, so Christ saved others from the ultimate destruction of separation from God.  Just as those in the ark had to endure the flood in order to come into a new creation, so Christians must pass through the waters of baptism in order to take on a new conscience.

“The water of the flood is a type of baptism because it both punished evil people and saved the good, just as baptism expels evil spirits and saves those who turn to Christ. This shows the great power of baptism, and how much we need it.” [Andreas (ca. 7th century), Catena]

It is not a removal of dirt from the body but an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ,

Peter insists that baptism is not merely a simple cleansing.  Rather, it is a transformative experience, just as the resurrection was a transformative experience for Christ.

who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers subject to him.

Christ’s descent into the realm of the dead is followed by an ascension into heaven.  Here Christ occupies the place of honor at the right hand of God, an allusion to Psalm 110:1.

The innocent Christ has been both vindicated and exalted.

Gospel – Mark 1:12-15

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.

After John had been arrested,
Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the gospel of God:
“This is the time of fulfillment.
The kingdom of God is at hand.
Repent, and believe in the gospel.”

This account of the temptation, though brief, is charged with theological meaning.

The Spirit drove Jesus out

For ancient Israel, the Spirit was a manifestation of the mighty power of God.  It was the Spirit that propelled the judges into the action that saved Israel from its enemies (Judges 3:10),  It was the Spirit that provided the kings with what they needed to consolidate the tribes into a cohesive nation (1 Samuel 16:13).  It was the Spirit that took obscure individuals and made them prophets of God (Isaiah 61:1).

This was the Spirit that drove Jesus into the wilderness.

into the desert,

Although no details are given, it is usually assumed that this is the Judean desert where John the Baptist had been active.

The desert had been the place of Israel’s testing (Numbers 10:11 – 21:34).  Bereft there of all the supports that an established society had to offer, the people were thrown on the providence of God.  The wilderness had a long tradition of being the place of trial.  Again and again the people failed the test.

“Soon after He had been baptized He performed a fast of forty days by Himself, and He taught and informed us by His example that, after we have received forgiveness of sins in baptism, we should devote ourselves to vigils, feasts, prayers and other spiritually fruitful things, lest when we are sluggish and less vigilant the unclean spirit expelled from our heart by baptism may return, and finding us fruitless in spiritual riches, weigh us down again with a sevenfold pestilence, and our last state would then be worse than the first.” (Saint Bede the Venerable (ca. A.D. 720), Homilies on the Gospels, 1,12)

and he remained in the desert for forty days,

Forty days held special meaning for the two men who represented, respectively, Israel’s law and prophets.  Moses fasted for forty days and forty nights as he wrote the Ten Commandments on tablets of stone (Exodus 34:28).  Elijah fasted for the same length of time as he walked to Horeb (1 Kings 19:8).

It was in this same tradition that Jesus fasted.

tempted by Satan.

Originally Satan was seen as a kind of juridical adversary, the one who accused someone of wrongdoing.  Only later did accusation develop into instigation of evil and the temptation to acquiesce to it.  Gradually several unconnected characterizations of evil being from either the heavens or the underworld began to merge into this concept, until it resulted in the picture found in this reading.  Satan, the personification of evil, roams the world in an attempt to turn human beings away from God.

He was among wild beasts, and the angels ministered to him.

The wilderness was not a romantic place.  It was rife with danger.  Inhabited by wild animals, it was also the refuge of bandits and the discarded of society.

The wild beasts may also symbolize the evil with which Jesus contends, with support from the angels.

After John had been arrested,

Having withstood his desert trial, Jesus now begins his ministry.

Note that Jesus’ ministry did not begin until John’s had ended.

Jesus came to Galilee

The Galilean ministry is central to Mark’s gospel. It is not only the scene of the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, it is also where the Apostles go to meet the Risen Lord (Mark 16:7).

proclaiming the gospel of God: “This is the time of fulfillment.

The time (kaíros) has arrived.  This is not ordinary chronological time, but a decisive moment.  In eschatological thought, it is the time of fulfillment.

The kingdom of God is at hand.

Following the announcement is an explanation of the character of this special time: it is the advent of the reign of God.

Israel had long awaited the reign of God.  Being constantly at the mercy of more powerful nations, or being ruled by kings who did not abide God’s will, the people longed for a time when they would be free from foreign influence and able to pursue their religious destiny.

Repent, and believe in the gospel.”

Jesus taught that Israel could only fulfill her destiny if the people were to repent, undergo a change of heart (metánoia), and accept the good news that he preached.

While this message sounds simple, its implications are unsettling.  Jesus’ interpretation of God’s will did not correspond to the predominant understanding of his day, and a change of mind and heart is a lifelong task.  His announcement of such a ministry was fraught with danger.

Connections and Themes

Lent is typically regarded as a time for us to sacrifice our wants and desires in order to more deeply devote ourselves to God.  However, Lent is also a time to remind ourselves of all that we receive.  We are not meant to accomplish great things for God; rather, it is God who acts, it is God who makes the sacrifice, it is God who accomplishes great things for us.

The readings for this Sunday provide a kind of synopsis of the entire Lenten season.  They acknowledge that we are living in the midst of conflict, they sketch God as initiating a relationship with us in the midst of this conflict, and they end with a proclamation of the good news of salvation.

We live in the midst of conflict.  Each of the readings describes a different kind of conflict in which we might find ourselves.  The first is a world-wrenching upheaval such as happens during social discord, war, or natural disaster.  We become victims of forces beyond our control, and we have no place to hide.  We are completely vulnerable and can only cling to the hope that somehow God is with us.  The second kind of conflict is spiritual, the struggle between right and wrong, between fidelity and disobedience.  The author of 1 Peter suggests that we are in the throes of this struggle and only the graciousness of God can deliver us.  Finally, the gospel passage depicts Jesus struggling, as we all do, with temptation.  These readings have not fabricated a fictional view of life.  Rather, they have accurately reported what we have all experienced at one time or another.

God initiates a relationship.  In the midst of the conflicts of life, God initiates a covenantal relationship.  God saves the world from the chaos into which it was thrown, makes a covenant with all living things and with the earth, and sets a bow in the heavens as a perpetual reminder of the covenant.  Christ dies for sinners and offers them a baptismal bath that will save them from the chaos of their lives.  The Spirit drives Jesus into the desert, there to be tested but to emerge triumphant.  His victory is not for him alone but for all those who will heed his words and follow his example.  In each instance, it is God who initiates a remarkable act that saves: the covenant, the baptismal bath, and the proclamation of the reign of God.

The good news of salvation.  The bow in the sky is the sign of the good news of the covenant; baptism is both the good news of salvation for us and our pledge of fidelity to God; Jesus’ proclamation is that the reign of God is at hand.  His message is not like John’s, which was merely one of repentance.  The good news is a positive message that the reign of God is in our midst.  It has been inaugurated by God, as all good things have their origin in God.  It was the Spirit that drove Jesus into the desert only to reappear among us God with us.  Baptism is our entrance into this glorious reign.  The season of Lent is a time for us to reflect on God’s goodness and to decide upon an appropriate response to it.

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