Sunday, Feb. 21, is the First Sunday of Lent. Mass Readings: Genesis 9:8-15; Psalm 25:4-5, 6-7, 8-9; 1 Peter 3:18-22; Mark 1:12-15.
The readings have two themes: On the one hand, at the start of Lent, we ponder Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, since Lent is a spiritual participation in Jesus’ 40 days of self-denial and testing.
On the other hand, Lent is the season of preparation for baptism, so in the first readings throughout Lent, the Church presents us with types or foreshadowings of baptism from salvation history. The type of baptism for this first Sunday is the Great Flood, whose rains lasted 40 days — another image of Lent. The waters of the Great Flood were a judgment on sin, but by means of the wooden ark, Noah, his family and representatives of all living creatures were saved from death and brought to a renewed, refreshed world to make a new beginning.
After the flood, God made a new covenant with Noah, giving to him the blessings once bestowed on Adam. This was a covenant of peace, symbolized by God’s “war bow” being hung up in the sky, like a warrior who hangs his bow over the hearth when he returns home from battle. All is at peace. As our second reading (1 Peter 3:18-22) points out, the Great Flood “prefigured” baptism. The waters of baptism are a judgment of God on our sins, and our “sinful self” is drowned in the waters; but because of the wood of Christ’s cross, we are raised up from the waters as new creatures (2 Corinthians 5:17), living in a whole new world where we have the power of the Holy Spirit and are freed from the bondage of sin and Satan.
After baptism and through baptism, we enter into the New Covenant with Christ, where he bestows on us the blessings once given to Adam, especially the “breath of life” (Genesis 2:7), the Holy Spirit. In this New Covenant, we have peace with God (Romans 5:1). We are no longer “at war” with God over control of our lives (Romans 7:23). There are even Adamic and new creation themes in our Gospel reading. It describes Jesus as being “driven” by the Spirit out into the wilderness, where he is tempted (the Greek can also mean “tested”) by Satan in the presence of the wild animals and the angels. St. Mark describes the temptation in such a way as to make us think of Adam, who was tempted by Satan (Genesis 3:1; Revelation 12:9) in the presence of the animals (Genesis 2:19) and the angels (Genesis 3:24; Ezekiel 28:13-14, RSV) in the Garden of Eden. Of course, Adam had the comforts of a garden when he was tempted, but Jesus was subject to the rigors of the desert. Despite this serious disadvantage, Jesus triumphs where Adam failed, becoming the father of a new human race, free from bondage to Satan.
When Jesus returns from the wilderness, he preaches, “This is the time of fulfillment!” — probably alluding to the prophet Daniel’s prediction of 490 years until the Messiah (Daniel 9:25-27). “The Kingdom of God is at hand (i.e., here)! Repent, and believe in the Gospel!” “Gospel” is an Old English word meaning “Good News.”
What is the “Good News”? That God’s kingdom has come to earth! What is his kingdom? In one sense, it is Jesus himself (Luke 17:21), who is the King. But since the Church is his mystical body (Ephesians 1:22-23), the Church is the kingdom, as well. What must we do to be part of that kingdom? Repent! This means not only feel sorrow for our sins, but turn away from them and stop doing them. Let’s pray at this Mass that our Lenten practices help us put to death any sinful habits that might be keeping us from experiencing the new world of freedom that Jesus brings.
John Bergsma Dr. John Bergsma is Professor of Theology at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. A former Protestant pastor, Dr. Bergsma entered the Catholic Church in 2001 while getting his Ph.D. in Bible from the University of Notre Dame. A close collaborator of Dr. Scott Hahn, Bergsma speaks regularly on Catholic radio and at conferences and parishes nationally and internationally. He has authored seven books on Scripture and the Catholic faith, including Bible Basics for Catholics (Ave Maria Press), Stunned by Scripture: How the Bible Made Me Catholic (Our Sunday Visitor), and A Catholic Introduction to the Bible: Old Testament (with Brant Pitre; Ignatius Press). Dr. Bergsma’s talks and studies are available on CD and mp3 from catholicproductions.com. He and his wife Dawn reside with their eight children in Steubenville, Ohio.