Sunday, February 18, 2018

1st Sunday of Lent

Gn 9:8-15
Ps 25:4-9
1 Pt 3:18-22
Mk 1:12-15

The Gospel for the first Sunday of Lent is always about Jesus' temptations in the desert.  Each of the three synoptic gospels places this narrative just after Jesus' baptism by John. The challenge with Mark's Gospel is that unlike Matthew and Luke he gives no detail about the temptations.  Mark simply notes that Jesus was tempted.  Even in its brevity, it is an important reminder that Jesus was like us in all things but sin, that he too struggled with desires, with temptations, with tests, (call them what you will) just as we do. 

Unlike the consistent theme of the gospel reading for this first Sunday in Lent, the first and second readings are different in each of the three years of the cycle of readings. Today the first reading describes God's covenant with Noah, in which He promised that flood waters would never cover the whole earth again. 

The Talmud is a collection of commentaries on the Torah, the first five books of  scripture, or, what we call The Old Testament. In its commentary on this passage The Jewish Study Bible cites the Talmud which notes that, the covenant with Noah laid down seven commandments to which all were obligated. They were: to establish courts of justice, to refrain from blasphemy, to refrain from idolatry, to refrain from sexual perversion. The covenant forbade bloodshed and robbery. Finally it demanded not eating meat cut from a living animal. Those who observed the "seven commandments of the descendants of Noah" would meet with God's full approval.

With the exception of eating meat cut from a living animal, essentially avoiding meat that was not first properly slaughtered, the seven commandments are almost identical to the Decalogue, the Ten Commandments given to Moses.  The modern world, especially the U.S., would do well to take notice that blasphemy, false gods, sexual perversion, robbery, and murder--including the killing of children in the womb or the ill elderly--have been forbidden for millennia rather than being inventions of the Catholic Church.

The second reading from the First Letter of Peter makes reference to the Torah in recalling Noah.  God waited patiently while the ark was built such that eight persons in all, and thus all of mankind, were saved through water.  Peter correctly links this saving water to baptism.

Water is a powerful symbol for the Church. It is a symbol of life and salvation in both the Old Testament and the New. Thus we read about: the water in which the basket holding the infant Moses floated, the water that was parted as the Israelites fled Egypt, the water of the Jordan in which Jesus was baptize, the water mixed with blood that flowed from Jesus' side at the crucifixion.  Water is much more important to human life than food.  We can live for many days without food.  We can only live a few days without water. 

Physicians spend a lot of time, particularly in the hospital thinking and worrying about fluid balance and adjusting fluids, particularly for the critically ill.  Water is crucial to our day-to-day physical lives.  Vitamins, organic locally grown food, or any of the food fetishes prevalent today are, in comparison, completely irrelevant.  Water is even more crucial to our spiritual lives, water is more critical to life of our souls.  

The water of baptism is the only way in which we are able enter into life. Only after having received this saving water can we partake fully in the life in the Church.  Without the water of baptism there is no spiritual life.  Without the water of baptism there is no light of Christ.  Without the water of baptism there is no partaking of the Eucharistic banquet.  Without the water of baptism there is nothing. 

There is only a void.

There is a void like the one that existed before God said let there be light.  The light of Christ is visible only to those who have received the waters of baptism.  It will never be otherwise.

Lent is described as penitential.  However, it should also be transformational.  On Wednesday there were two formulae for the imposition of ashes.  I sometimes think they should be combined into one.  The first, "Remember, thou art dust and to dust thou shalt return" reminded us of our common mortality.  The second, "Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospels" reminded us of our vocation as Catholics.

As we move from this first Sunday of Lent toward the joy of Easter we are called to meditate on one and to live according to the other.


Photo of the Franciscan Church of the Annunciation in Ljubljana, Slovenia during Lent.  I made my 8-day retreat there last year.  This year will be at a nun's monastery as primary celebrant for most of the liturgies while making the retreat.  
 +Fr. Jack, SJ, MD

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