In the contemporary Lectionary, the First Readings during Lent in all three years attempt to rehearse and teach salvation history, not only as a refresher for the congregation but as an initiation for catechumens, who are preparing to enter in the story of salvation through the sacraments.
World literature has many stories, with variations, about magic books that suck the reader into the world of the book, where he or she suddenly finds themselves in a very different reality. In a way, the Bible is such a “magic book.” It contains a story that appears to be distant from the reader in time and space, and yet the reader can “enter into” the story and “write new chapters” by his or her life. The way one enters into the story is through Baptism, which “sucks the reader in,” and makes the story of salvation into their story now. The Baptized person can say that he or she has experienced the creation, when the dry land came up out of the water; been through the flood, where eight were saved through the surging tide; crossed the Red Sea with Moses and the Israelites; entered the Promised Land through the waters of the Jordan; and much more. All these events of salvation history, which prefigured Baptism, are applied to the Baptizand and become part of his or her story: “I was there!”
Our First Reading is 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.”
“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.”
The theme for this Sunday is “the new creation,” and the great flood of Noah is perhaps the first “new creation” in salvation history. Genesis 1:2 describes the earth as being covered by the waters of the great deep before God began his creative acts, and in the flood, the waters of the great deep cover the earth once again, so that the dry land may be brought up for a second time, and animals and man repopulate the face of the earth. The Ark is a floating “Garden of Eden”—it has been called a “zoo,” but remember that “zoo” is short for the original “zoological garden.” Built in three stories (Gen 6:16), the Ark prefigures the later three-level Temple in Jerusalem (1 Kgs 6:6), which likewise would be a “sacrament of Eden.” Noah is a “new Adam,” a new father of the human race, who like Adam receives a covenant and the blessings to be “fruitful and multiply” (cf. Gen 1:28; 9:1) and exercise authority over the rest of creation (cf. 1:28; 9:2). After the flood, the earth has been cleansed and is “new” again—the animals and human beings find themselves in a restored creation.
The Flood illustrates a pattern in salvation history of God’s mercy being greater than his justice. Although God justly could have ended the history of the earth with the flood, nonetheless he has mercy on man and animals by going to great lengths to spare representatives of each kind, and then offers to them a new covenant at the end of the time of judgement, a new covenant which includes a solemn commitment no longer to punish in that same way. We can see the covenant with Noah as a foreshadowing of the New Covenant in Christ, which came after the long punishment of Israel in the exile, and opened the door to endless mercy and forgiveness by the pouring out of the Holy Spirit.
Our Responsorial Psalm is Psalm 25:4-5, 6-7, 8-9:
R. (cf. 10) Your ways, O Lord, are love and truth to those who keep your covenant.
Your ways, O LORD, make known to me;
teach me your paths,
Guide me in your truth and teach me,
for you are God my savior.
R. Your ways, O Lord, are love and truth to those who keep
Remember that your compassion, O LORD,
and your love are from of old.
In your kindness remember me,
because of your goodness, O LORD.
R. Your ways, O Lord, are love and truth to those who keep your covenant.
Good and upright is the LORD,
thus he shows sinners the way.
He guides the humble to justice,
and he teaches the humble his way.
R. Your ways, O Lord, are love and truth to those who keep your covenant.
After hearing of the “new” covenant with Noah that prefigures the New Covenant in Christ, this Psalm celebrates the covenant relationship between God and humanity. A covenant forms a family relationship, and while family relationships create mutual obligations, they also provide the context for profound love and intimacy. This psalm celebrates the God’s instruction—the law associated with his covenant—as a “way” that leads to life and joy. Far from wanted to be released from God’s law or find loopholes around it, the Psalmists loves God’s law and wants to understand it more and more: “Your ways, O LORD, make known to me; teach me your paths, guide me in your truth and teach me ….” This desire is very far from the attitude that is just interested in the “minimum” necessary to “get into heaven,” or what the basic requirements of the Church are in order to “get the sacrament,” or what are the “essentials” that—as long as I observe them—I can “do my own thing.”
In the New Covenant, the Law is no longer a written code but a person, the Holy Spirit. The love the psalmist has for God’s instruction, God’s way, we can apply to love for the Holy Spirit and desire to grow more deeply in our understanding and openness to him.
Our Second Reading is 1 Peter 3:18-22:
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 remarkable passage of 1 Peter shows the intimate connection between the time of the flood and the redemption in Christ. After his death and resurrection, Peter says, Jesus went to “preach to the spirits in prison”—this is the Israelite concept of sheol, in Greek hades, the realm of the dead. It is not the same as hell, the place of punishment for those who reject God definitively, but the netherworld where all souls—those of the just and the unrighteous—waited for the coming of the Messiah and the time of judgment.
Peter goes on to speak of the symbolism of the Flood. The Flood, he insists, “prefigured Baptism, which saves you.” We note the Apostle’s straightforward sacramental realism: “Baptism … saves you.” Outside the Catholic and Orthodox churches, few Christians today would speak this way, because most Protestant traditions do not regard Baptism as salvific, but as an external sign of one’s profession of faith in Christ.
Peter describes Baptism as “an appeal to God for a clear conscience.” This unusual formulation can confuse people, but the Apostle means that the rite of Baptism is, in a sense, a prayer to God for the cleansing of our consciences through the gift of the Holy Spirit. Only Baptism can truly clear our consciences, by removing and forgiving sin, and infusing us with “the mind of Christ” (1 Cor 2:16).
The Holy Spirit was poured out after the resurrection and ascension—and just as Peter recalled the resurrection and ascension in his sermon at the first Christian Pentecost (Acts 2:24-33), so now he ties the efficacy of Baptism to the resurrection and ascension. Jesus is now enthroned over all spiritual powers, and pours out the Spirit on all who come to him in faith and humility—in particular through the waters of Baptism.
Our Gospel is 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.”
Mark describes Jesus’ forty-day sojourn in the desert in terms that suggest it was a kind of return, if not to Eden, at least to the primeval state of humanity. Look at the parallels between Adam-in-the-Garden and Jesus-in-the-desert: both were “tempted by Satan” (Gen 3:1-7), both were “among the wild beasts” (Gen 2:18-20), both were in the company of angels (Gen 3: 24; Ezek 28:11-16). Jesus is a New Adam, and superior to Adam, inasmuch as Jesus withstands the temptations of Satan whereas Adam succumbed to them. The differences between the two are also significant: Adam fell though living in an earthly paradise; Jesus prevailed though dwelling in a God-forsaken desert. Having defeated Satan, Jesus returns from the desert and begins his preaching ministry. “This is the time of fulfillment”—the culmination of all the covenants, including that with Noah. “The Kingdom of God is at hand”—this means not just “it is close,” but “it is here, it has arrived.” How? In the person of Jesus, who is the King. “Repent, and believe in the Good News.” “Repent” means to cease and turn away from our sins. Sin can be defined as selfishness, or also as breaking the covenant. Sin is what separates us from God—indeed, the only thing that can separate us, because sin is in its essence a rejection of love, and God is love. Therefore, every sin is a rejection of God. And God is polite—he will not come where he is not wanted. So “Repent, and believe in the Good News.” What is the Good News? That the Kingdom of God has arrived on earth! That is still Good News today. God’s kingdom has arrived, and one can join it, and it provides the means for the most intimate conceivable relationship of love with the creator of the Universe. Good News indeed!