Do you ever have the experience of hearing one of the stories from the Gospels for the hundredth time and suddenly realizing how strange it is?
Often, we have heard these stories since we were children, and that they can go in one ear and out the other without much notice. We can go our whole life without realizing how strange Jesus really was.
This Sunday we have one such Gospel reading. Every Lent we hear this story of Jesus going to the desert for forty days to be tempted by Satan. But isn’t this an odd thing for Jesus to do? Why would he intentionally go out into the desert like this?
In her wisdom, the Church gives us this reading at the beginning of Lent because Jesus is giving us an example of what the season of Lent is meant to be for us. Lent is a time to remember the reality of our life on earth. In the way that Lent prepares us for Easter, our life on earth is meant to prepare us for heaven – the eternal Easter. We are battling against evil in the desert of this world, with the hope of the resurrection on the other side. Lent draws us into this reality and prepares us for this battle.
First Reading Reflection
In the Book of Genesis there is a gradual but clear decline in the state of the earth after the Fall. In the days of Noah, mankind has fallen so far from God that Noah alone is found to be just. God saves Noah from the destruction he visits upon the earth and then seeks to establish another worldwide covenant through his descendants. We can say “another” worldwide covenant because, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church makes clear, “the revelation of creation is inseparable from the revelation and forging of the covenant of the one God with his People. Creation is revealed as the ﬁrst step toward this covenant” (CCC 288). In other words, God sought a covenant relationship with us from the very beginning. Salvation history is the story of how the covenant is broken and ﬁnally re-established in the New Covenant in Christ.
A covenant is a sacred relationship that makes a permanent bond between the two parties. A covenant forms a family relationship, as does a marriage. In the Bible, the covenant relationship between Israel and God is compared both to a marriage and to the relationship between father and son; both, of course, are familial. In oﬀering Noah, and thus mankind, a covenant, God is oﬀering the most intimate and loving relationship to man. The problem throughout the Old Testament narrative is that humanity continually rebels and is unfaithful to this covenant.
Second Reading Reflection
Peter explains the story of Noah’s ark as corresponding to the rite of Baptism. This suggests that the sacramental life of the Church was seen from the very beginning as a continuation—a fulﬁllment—of God’s saving work throughout history. As God had once cleansed the world of sin in the waters of judgment in the time of Noah, he now cleanses it from sin in the waters of mercy through the Sacrament of Baptism. This connection between the ﬂood of Noah and Baptism was even represented in ancient baptisteries. These were often built with eight sides to indicate the number of the members of Noah’s family, “eight in all, [who] were saved through water.”
The season of Lent has always been observed as a preparation for Baptism (administered at the Easter Vigil) and so it is appropriate that the Church should give us these two readings to announce that theme. Those of us who have already been baptized will nonetheless renew our baptismal promises at Easter, and so it is ﬁtting that St. Peter reminds us that our Baptism is also “an appeal to God for a clear conscience.” Lent is the time the Church invites us to reﬂect on our solemn pledge and to prepare ourselves for its renewal in the baptismal rites of Easter.
The use of this short reading from Mark for the First Sunday of Lent is of very ancient origin. It introduces the struggle against Satan that we are to share with Christ during the Lenten season. As Jesus will say later, “No one can enter a strong man’s house … unless he ﬁrst binds the strong man” (Mk 3:27, RSV). Jesus combats the evil that tries to take the world—his house—from him. If our “house” is to become a temple of the Holy Spirit, the inﬂuence of evil must be swept away. The Lenten disciplines of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving are meant to do this under the inﬂuence of God’s grace.
Jesus, by fasting and praying in the desert, repeats, completes, and perfects all the puriﬁcations of the past. He is the new Adam, the new Noah, the new Moses, and the new Israel. Jesus does perfectly what these others had done imperfectly and shows us, as members of his Body, how to overcome sin. When Jesus returns from the desert he invites us to join him with the words that could be considered the primary theme of Lent: “This is the time of fulﬁllment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.”
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Think of your own life and the places the Lord is calling you to repentance and deeper conversion. How can you arrange your prayer, fasting, and almsgiving during Lent in a way that actually helps you move closer to that conversion?
DIGGING DEEPER: Spiritual Warfare
The Catechism says that to even begin to understand what sin is “one must ﬁrst recognize the profound relation of man to God, for only in this relationship is the evil of sin unmasked” (CCC 386). Sin is a relational act of man to God that can only be understood when we ponder the reality of the type of relationship God wants to bestow on us.
Spiritual warfare is not an arbitrary battle, but a battle to accept the gift that God freely offers us. Satan tempts us to deny the Lord and the gifts that come from being made his sons and heirs. Will we say yes to Satan and his empty promises, or yes to being a child of God?