1st Sunday of Lent (B) (February 26 2012)
A. The Bible as Guide in Life and Liturgy (Sunday Readings)
First Reading (Genesis 9:8-15).
In its biblical setting this passage comes at the end of the story of the flood (Genesis chapters 6-9). God had created the world and the human race. He blessed humanity and saw that everything he had made, was good, very good. But sin entered, and when God saw that the wickedness of humanity was very great, the biblical text says that God was sorry he had ever created humankind and decided to blot them out, apart from one man, Noah and his family. The biblical story of the flood follows on this and towards the end of this narrative comes today’s reading. Now that the earth had been cleansed by the waters of the flood, God promises that he will never again destroy the earth like this. There will never be a similar devastating flood again. He makes a solemn covenant with Noah to this effect, and the rainbow will be a sign of this covenant. On seeing the rainbow humanity can recall this divine covenant. This is chosen as a reading to go with the use made of it in the First Letter of Peter, read in today’s second reading which speaks of the cleansing waters of baptism. Lent which now begins is a time which calls on believers to repent of their sinfulness and cleanse their souls in preparation for the feast of Christ’s resurrection.
Responsorial Psalm (Psalm 24).
A prayer to God to make us know his ways, to teach us his paths, paths in which to walk.
Second Reading (1 Peter 3:18-22).
This passage is chosen for today’s reading because it compares the cleansing waters of baptism with the cleansing waters of the flood (with reference to Noah’s ark in which only eight people were saved, that is Noah, his wife, their three sons and their wives). In its original context in the epistle of Peter, the author is exhorting his readers to be prepared for suffering and persecution, but in all this to have as example Jesus Christ who suffered patiently. “For it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil” (1 Peter 3:17). The continuation in today’s passage develops the idea. Christ was put to death in his mortal body (“body”), but was raised to life in a new spiritual existence (“spirit”). The reference to Christ’s visit to the spirits in prison which follows has traditionally been interpreted as his descent into hell. The text, however, make no mention of any descent; rather the opposite — of his ascent. We are still in the context of the reference to Noah’s flood, and the reference is probably to the fallen angels, the “sons of God”, who in a Jewish tradition, were believed to have sinned and caused the flood in the first instance. These were the Dominations and Powers who were believed to oppose the work of Christ, and of his church. They were behind the persecutions believers in Christ were undergoing. At his resurrection, and ascent into heaven, Christ preached to these, preached not the Gospel message, but rather that in death he had triumphed over the powers of Satan and these spirits. Christ’s victory is made present for believers in baptism. Christian belief and liturgical practice moves at two levels, the earthly, external, and the spiritual, internal. Washing of the body as in the waters of baptism is external, of this world, but for a Christians it is internal and spiritual, due to the working of the Holy Spirit. It is a pledge made to God to retain a right attitude (possibly better than “from a pure conscience”). In it, through the resurrection of Christ, believers are united to the power of the risen saviour, who has proclaimed, and retains, his victory over all opposing powers of hell or this world, Dominations and Powers.
Gospel (Mark 1:12-15).
The temptation of Christ narrative is read every year in the First Sunday of Lent. This is year B of cycle, the year of Mark. Hence the reading today of from Mark. Most of us are familiar with the three temptations by Satan of Matthew and Luke. Mark does not list those. Worthy of note is it that after his baptism, when by the Father’s voice from Heaven Jesus was declared as God’s beloved Son, the Spirit, that is the Holy Spirit, actually drove Jesus into the wilderness, where he was tempted by Satan. It was a conflict about the kingdom of God, the defeat of Satan. The passage recalls the early Christian hymn in Philippians 2:6-1: Jesus, though in the form of God (Son of God) did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but humbled himself, being found in human form. Having thus proved himself as human Jesus went to Galilee to preach the beginning of a new age: “Repent and believe in the good news”. This gives us the message of Lent.
B. The Bible in Dialogue with Questions of the Day
Message of Lent: “Repent and Believe in the Gospel”. Dying to Oneself in order to have life in Christ. Lent is not a time for mere externals, sackcloth and ashes. It is a period of forty days in which to reflect on the Christian mystery, on Christian life in Christ, on the dignity and dangers to the human person and on God’s message through Christ regarding all these truths. All this is done with reference to Christ, the New Man, the New Adam. During his forty days in the wilderness Jesus must have reflected on these truths, and the temptations against accepting his Father’s understanding of the human person and God’s response to this through Christ’s own life, his self-emptying, death and resurrection. The ancient hymn says that although in the form of God, Jesus did not think equality with God as something to be used for human advantage. Instead he humbled himself and willed instead to be found, and recognized, in human form. The reference is probably not to Jesus’ divine form, divine nature. The hymn, rather, is probably making a contrast between Christ and the First Adam in the garden. Eve was told by the serpent, the tempter, that if she and Adam asserted their autonomy by eating from the forbidden fruit, disobeying God’s command, they would become like God, knowing good and evil (Genesis 3:1-5). Adam, in human form, succumbed to the temptation to take on divine form, with disastrous consequences. Christ would have similar temptations but resisted, and became and an example for his followers, and a source of their salvation.
The drama of the first Adam and Christ, the second Adam, has been played out down through history, a drama still being enacted in our own day. Christianity and much of modern life have contrasting views of the human person and what fulfilment of human desires is. There is a tendency in a widespread modern worldview to regard the human person, and humanity, as one dimensional, autonomous, with a requirement to live and develop one’s own personal and social life without any input from outside, from God or Church. This is quite the opposite of the New Testament and biblical teaching. Central to this is that God is love, that God loves the world, and has sent his Son to bring this message of love to humanity. Christ came so believers in him, and humanity, have life and have it abundantly (see John 10:10). Christ is the source of life, but also its model. But Jesus also clearly tells us that finding the life he brings entails dying to self in a number of things; life in him entails taking up one’s cross and following him (Mathew 9:35-47). Jesus stresses the values of the human person. What does it profit anyone to gain the whole world and forfeit the integrity of one’s own person? What can be given in return for one’s self? (see Matthew 16:26). In its reflection on the role of the Church in the Modern World (paragraphs 40-44) Vatican II has treated of this question very sensitively: on the mutual relationship of Church and world (no. 40), what the Church offers to individuals (no. 41), what the Church offers to society (no. 42), what the Church offers to human activity through its members (no. 43). The text is available on the internet. It merits reading and reflection.
Lent is a call to turn away from false values and turn to the Gospel message. The period calls for reflection and devotion. Faith is nourished by devotion, personal and collective, whether in parish or family. Devotion need not be ostentatious. It can be personal and quiet, for instance reflecting on Fridays on Jesus’ call to follow him, and in honour of his Passion abstaining from meat (by use fish or otherwise) at the main meal. And there are many other ways.