This week was to begin the WORD with Friends Bible study at Sacred Heart Cathedral, but we had to cancel due to the weather. So I am posting some thoughts and observations that I intended to share with the group here on the blog.
Grant, almighty God, through the yearly observances of holy Lent, that we may grow in understanding of the riches hidden in Christ and by worthy conduct pursue their effects. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
The opening prayer of the celebrant at Mass is referred to as the Collect (pronounced with the emphasis on the first syllable). The term comes from the Latin word collecta and refers to the gathering of people together for worship, as well as the gathering of individual prayers and intentions into a unified prayer for the whole assembly. In the Collect for the First Sunday of Lent, there is a two-fold emphasis: first, that we may “grow in understanding of the riches hidden in Christ”, and second, that “by worthy conduct pursue their effects.” What are the riches hidden in Christ? While they are inexhaustible, these riches would include the forgiveness of our sins, the salvation of our souls, and eternal life in communion with God. And through what “worthy conduct” do we pursue their effects? Through prayer, fasting and almsgiving – not as a way of “earning” our salvation, but as the means by which we allow what Christ has done for us to take root in us.
First Reading 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.” God added: “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.”
I suppose it seems odd, in a way, to begin Lent with the story of Noah’s ark. But there are more than a few connections. The most obvious one is the “forty days and forty nights” that it rained (Gen 7:4), drawing our attention to the duration of Lent. But in this specific passage, our attention is focused on the establishment of a covenant by God; we see the word “covenant” appear five times. But what is a covenant? According to the definition found in the glossary of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, a covenant is “a solemn agreement between human beings or between God and a human being involving mutual commitments or guarantees. The Bible refers to God’s covenants with Noah, Abraham, and Moses as leaders of the chosen people, Israel. In the Old Testament or Covenant, God revealed his law through Moses and prepared his people for salvation through the prophets. In the New Testament or Covenant, Christ established a new and eternal covenant through his own sacrificial death and resurrection.” By entering into a covenant, God enters into a lasting and permanent relationship. This covenant with Noah is the first of many covenants that God enters into with various people – and it points to the ultimate and final covenant that God will establish through the death and resurrection of Christ, the Paschal Mystery.
Second Reading 1 Peter 3:18-22
Beloved: 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.
In this reading, we see another connection with Noah and Lent. Historically, the season of Lent developed as a period of final preparation for the sacrament of baptism. St. Peter here draws the connection between the salvation of Noah and his family and “baptism, which saves you now.” Just as the waters of the flood cleansed the world of the effects of sin, and resulted in a “new creation”, so too the waters of Baptism cleanse us from sin and bring about our new creation in Christ. Through Baptism we enter into the New Covenant that Christ established through his death and resurrection; as St Paul reminds us, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:3-4).
Gospel 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.”
In the Gospel, Jesus is driven out into the desert, which throughout Scripture is a place of testing and preparation, for forty days. (This occurs after the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist in the river Jordan, in which Christ sanctified the waters and the Holy Trinity was manifested). After his forty day fast (mentioned in Matthew and Luke), he began his public ministry with the call to conversion: “Repent and believe in the gospel.” Our forty day Lenten journey of prayer and fasting is a time for us to prepare, to struggle against the temptations of Satan, to face the wild beasts that threaten us, to draw strength from the ministering angels. It is a special time for us to hear the call to conversion, to repent of our sins, to believe in the Good News, and to follow Christ.
God grant us a holy Lent.
~ Dave Wells is the Adult Faith Formation Director at Sacred Heart Cathedral in Knoxville, TN. Please visit his Welcome the Word blog.