1st Sunday in Lent
St. Francis Xavier, Hunt Valley
February 20 and 21, 2021
Starting Over Again
Have you ever begun to write an essay – and after a page or two decided that you were on the wrong track? It happens to me now and then, and when it does, I delete what I had written, or, if I’m using my trusty fountain pen and a legal pad, I’ll tear up my ill-starred creation…Today’s reading from Genesis, the story of Noah, the ark, and the flood, is like that. Even though God made the earth a good and wholesome place, and created humanity as the pinnacle of his creation – things went awry. Human waywardness so marred the beauty of God’s creation, that God decided to wash it all away in an epic flood, and to try again.
But God did not completely destroy his creation or humanity itself. Because Noah and his family were righteous, he saved them. As torrential rains pummeled the earth for forty days and forty nights, eight people—and various pairs of animals—were afloat aboard the ark. In today’s second reading, St. Peter makes clear that those on the ark were saved by the very waters that destroyed a wayward humanity and its evil works. Peter goes on to say that waters of the flood correspond to the waters of Baptism, those waters by which we are cleansed of sin and saved from eternal darkness. For Baptism is not a merely a cleansing of the flesh but a deep interior cleansing, a cleansing of our souls, such that we can stand before God with a clear conscience. In this way, St. Peter teaches us that the Sacrament of Baptism is truly efficacious. It not only cleanses us of sin; it also gives us a share in Christ’s Death and Resurrection, thus making us the Father’s adopted children who share in his Triune life and love.
These readings for the First Sunday of Lent serve to remind us that during this holy season, many are preparing to be baptized at the Easter Vigil, while still others are preparing to renew their baptismal promises. This includes those being received into full communion with the Church, as well as returning and practicing Catholics who seek to be renewed in their faith. Those to be baptized and those who are to renew their baptismal promises are meant to experience a new beginning, a renewed relationship with God the Father, through Jesus Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit. What is more, just as Noah and his companions were prepared over 40 days and 40 nights for a new covenant-relationship with God … so too, during the 40 days of Lent, we are to prepare to be renewed in our relationship with God, as members of the Church, united with her Lord in the new and eternal covenant.
A Definitive New Beginning
This brings us St. Mark’s Gospel, a gospel reading that puts us on notice that we can expect to be challenged as we repent and prepare for the Easter Sacraments. In today’s Gospel, we meet Jesus fresh from his own Baptism in the Jordan. As we know, the Baptism of God’s well-beloved and eternal Son marked the beginning of a new and final era in salvation history and a fresh beginning for humanity itself. But what happened immediately thereafter? Mark tells us that the Spirit drove Jesus into the desert, where he fasted and prayed for forty days and forty nights. In that desolate setting, Satan put Jesus to the test; in a word, he tempted Jesus … just as the occupants of Noah’s Ark were tested for forty days and nights and the Israelites were tested as they journeyed through the desert for forty years. Reading between the lines of today’s Gospel, we realize that Jesus vanquished Satan. Having done so, he forthwith instructed us “to repent and to believe in the Gospel.”
What is the upshot of this as we prepare for baptism or the renewal of our baptism? Simply this: we can be sure that, just as Jesus was tempted, we will also be tempted. Satan will combine with the unruly elements of our nature to ensure that the path of repentance leading to saving waters of Baptism and to the Eucharist Table will be encumbered by all kinds of obstacles: doubts, distractions, discouragement, ennui, and yes, sins of the heart and of the flesh. We will find it harder and harder to abide by our Lenten promises to pray more deeply, to mortify ourselves, and to share what we have with the poor. When we pray, we may feel the desolation of the desert. When we fast, we may feel more keenly the pangs of the flesh. When we give to the poor, we may experience the depth of our own need. When we accuse ourselves of sin in the Sacrament of Penance, we may be tempted to think that God’s mercy is unnecessary or that his mercy will be denied us. In the grace of the Holy Spirit, let us vanquish all such temptations, just as Jesus did.
Let us, then, anchor our lives firmly in the victory of Christ over sin and death, a triumph presaged by his victory over Satan in the desert, and definitively accomplished in his Passion, Death, and Resurrection. May the waters Jesus gives us, the waters of Baptism, be for us ‘a spring of water welling up to eternal life’ (John 4:14) and may God bless us and keep us always in his love!