1st SUNDAY OF LENT FEBRUARY 21, 2021
Genesis 9: 8-15; Psalm 25; I Peter 3: 18-22; Mark 1: 12-15
By Jude Siciliano, OP
On the first night of
a parish retreat I noticed the arrival of a group of about eight young adults;
one couple had an infant in arms. With them were some older members of the
parish, the “stalwarts.” I was struck by the energy of the group, their
enthusiasm and involvement in our prayer service and the obvious bonds among
them—maybe not so much of friendship, but community. I saw them after the
service, introduced myself and asked if they were neighbors, co-workers, or a
special group in the parish. One young woman responded, “We’re the catechumens.”
That brief response explained a lot: their enthusiasm, sense of community and
their attendance at a shared weeknight prayer service. I wished their enthusiasm
would rub off on the rest of us “cradle Catholics.”
That group of catechumens comes to mind this Sunday, the first Sunday in Lent. They remind and call us to enter more fully into our Lenten journey. While Lent is about the catechumens preparing for baptism, it is also about those of us who have been around for a while and have gotten into a rut, or have tried a few diversionary paths. This new season is a chance for us to be refreshed in faith; an opportunity to think about the renewal of our baptismal commitment we will profess at the Easter Vigil – whether in person, or live-streamed. We fix our eyes on that coming moment of personal and communal renewal. During Lent we do what we can to make that renewal one of total commitment; a moment when we do our best to make one big “Yes” to the life of the Spirit of Jesus within us. This Lent we pray for the enthusiasm of those catechumens and ask for a sense of rediscovery in our faith, as if we were entering it for the first time.
During this Pandemic people say they feel God has deserted them. So much sickness, so many deaths, such pain! “Where is God?”, they ask. When will God come to help us? Doesn’t God care for us? During Lent we might pray for a refreshed faith in the God of the Genesis passage. The story tells of God’s covenant with Noah. It takes place right after the Flood. The writer is tracing the covenant between God and Israel, but notice that “every living creature” is included. God is the God of all creation and despite any future sin on our part, or God’s seeming-indifference, God will not go back on the covenant God has made with us. Be assured, the passage reminds us, God is faithful.
The Genesis passage has the famous story of the rainbow. The rainbow is not to serve as a reminder to us of God’s covenant; but it is a sign to God “to recall the covenant I have made between me and you and all living beings....” No matter how far adrift we go; no matter that we might forget God, or feel that God has forgotten us, the author of Genesis says, God will never forget us. This first Sunday of Lent begins with a strong reminder that God has bound God’s self to an everlasting relationship with us and will never let go. Such a lover-God is a strong attraction to us this Lent, which has been intensified by the pandemic’s shadow of death. We have nothing to fear from this God, as we turn away from other gods presented to us in modern life and return to the everlasting God who has made a covenant with “every living creature.”
The first Sunday of Lent always begins with Jesus’ temptation in the desert. Matthew, Mark and Luke each have their own take on the story. This liturgical year we have Mark’s account. It is brief and leaves out the details told by Matthew and Luke. The preacher should avoid the temptation to “fill in the blanks” by going to the other gospel accounts for more details about the temptations. We need to respect Mark’s narrative and listen to what he has to say to us as we begin our Lenten desert journey.
Mark almost dismisses Jesus’ temptation. He covers it in a terse line, “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.” That’s it! We are reminded of what John the Baptist said just a few verses earlier. He promised, “After me will come one more powerful than I...”(1:7). Well, Mark’s temptation account certainly shows how powerful Jesus is. As we enter this Lent we may feel our own resolve to change is wishy-washy, that we have tried so many times before and failed. Perhaps we are thinking, “It’s another Lent, here we go again.” We lack the catechumens’ enthusiasm, we have been around the block more than a few times! How do we make this Lent a fresh experience? How do we gather the spiritual desire and energy to change? How will we even know the areas in us where change is necessary?
After John spoke about the “one more powerful than I,” he said, “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” There’s the source of our renewal; there’s the One who can fill us with the desire to change and make that change possible. Jesus will baptize us anew with his Spirit this Lent to make our wizened spirits new again. Lent is truly a season of hope in which we discover that what is impossible for us, is possible for God.
In the desert Israel was tested and gave into temptation. Just as Israel spent forty years in the desert, now Jesus spends forty days there. Like Israel he is tempted, but does not give in. Mark tells us that there were wild beasts with Jesus in the desert. For other humans that would be a scary place to be; but in Jesus, God is reconciling humans and nature. The desert losses its hostile qualities. With Jesus there it is a peaceable kingdom – the messiah has reconciled humans and “wild beasts.” Lent provides an opportunity to confront the “wild beasts” of our lives. Think here of the aggression, competition, and insatiable desires that have control over us and our nation. They are wild beasts, un-tamable. But they do not have to have dominion over us, for we have been baptized into Jesus, the powerful One, who overcomes the tests in the desert and makes peace between opposing forces.
We are also told that in this place of testing and hostile forces, there were also ministering “angels.” We pass through many periods of testing in our lives, times when our very identity as Christians is seriously challenged. Powerful but subtle forces pull us at us and we can feel solitary in our struggle against them. But there are “angels” ministering to us in the deserts of our lives: when an addiction seems impossible to break and we find help in a group; when we are distraught over the death of a loved one and other, widowed friends, share their stories and give us courage; when we are laid up in bed with a broken leg, or bad back and friends come during these social-distancing day to drop off food at our front door; when our faith is dry and we pray wondering why we bother, but the prayer and faith of other worshipers give us hope; when we want to be a peacemaker, live a simpler life, or choose the path of service and we hear nothing but the voices of nay-sayers, and then the lives of the saints and stories of contemporary Christians are our “angels” in the wilderness, ministering to us, enabling us to be faithful to the call we hear and are trying to live out. Other “angels” may not be as tangible, but nevertheless comfort us in the desert. Our ideals and dreams, (our “angels”?) if we stay with them, lift us up and sustain us through the difficult, testing times.
Deserts – what are they for us? In the desert of the Jews, as they faced temptations and even betrayed God, God stayed with them and led them out. Genesis reminds us that when we see the sign, the rainbow, we are assured that God is faithful to the covenant God made with all living beings. God makes sure that we do not have to pass through our deserts alone and sustains us in a variety of “angelic” ways .
Click here for a link to
this Sunday’s readings: