First Sunday of Lent

By Father Donald Dilger

Sunday Scripture

First Sunday of Lent

First Reading: Genesis 9:8-15; Response: Psalm 25:4-5, 6-7, 8-9; Second Reading:1 Peter 3:18-22; Gospel: Mark 1:12-15

The Book (Scroll) of Genesis is the first of the five scrolls that are called Torah (law, teaching, revelation) in the Hebrew Scriptures, our Old Testament. Christians usually call this collection The Pentateuch from the Greek meaning five scrolls or the tubes or cases that enclosed the scrolls for storage. The English title of the first book of the Torah is Genesis, derived from the Greek word meaning origin. It speaks of the origin of creation and the origin of the Israelites as a People of God. The Hebrew title of a book is taken from the first or more words of the Hebrew text. For the Book of Genesis, the first word is translated as ‘In the beginning.’ The Catholic Church has a similar practice. A papal encyclical is known by its first words, usually in Latin.

Genesis begins with a liturgical hymn singing of God’s creation of the world in six days. It was arranged for a cantor to whom a choir of people responded as we do in the Response Psalm of our liturgies. This hymn is followed by another creation story — this one in prose. In quick succession: the Fall or origin of sin, the murder of Abel, some genealogies, Noah’s flood. The story of the flood connects us to today’s first and second readings. The first reading describes a covenant between God and Noah, who represents all creation, just like the first parents did in the creation hymn of the first chapter. This covenant is intended to extend even beyond humanity to all creation. This fact can be a counter to opponents of Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si, the duty of humanity to nurture our common home, the earth, for all creatures. In the covenant with Noah God promises to never again destroy the earth by a flood. God places a sign in the sky for all generations, “I set my bow in the clouds to serve as a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.” This sign is generally thought to be the rainbow that often appears after in the sky after a rainstorm. There is more to it. The rainbow is a symbol of God’s weapon, a war bow, by which he had made war upon the earth. God promises to hang up in the sky his weapon of destruction. Humanity has taken over the destruction of the earth. When we see a rainbow in the sky, it can remind us of the cry of St. Paul VI before the United Nations, “War never again!”

We might expect mention of the flood in the Response Psalm. Psalm 29 would have been a good choice. Psalm 25 however was selected as a response to the first reading by its emphasis on a key word, covenant. The people’s response: “Your ways, O Lord, are love and truth to those who keep your covenant.” The rest of Psalm 25 emphasizes the ways or paths of the Lord. The Psalmist asks God to remember his ancient compassion, love, kindness, goodness. All these divine qualities guide sinners into the Lord’s ways.

The second reading is an excerpt from the 1st Letter of Peter. This letter may have served as a baptismal instruction. The part of the letter given us today speaks of baptism and connects it with Noah – the ark, the flood, being saved through water (as in baptism). “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.” Then the homiletic application. “This prefigured baptism which saves you now.” One can easily imagine these words being addressed to catechumens immediately before or after their baptism. The author explains what baptism does not do and what it does. “It is not a removal of dirt from the body but an appeal to God for a clear conscience.” Where does baptism receive its power to clear the conscience? “Through the resurrection of Jesus Christ . . . .”

The gospel narrates the temptation of Jesus. There are three versions, Mark, Matthew, Luke, plus some references to it in Hebrews 2:18 and 4:15. Matthew and Luke use Mark’s version and expand it into a triple temptation. We could add a temptation of Jesus in John 12:27. Mark begins, “The Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert.” The episode follows immediately after the baptism of Jesus in which the Spirit descends upon him. That same Spirit now ‘drove’ him out into the desert. To make certain what Spirit is meant, Matthew clarifies, “the Spirit of God,” and Luke changes to “the Holy Spirit.” The word ‘drove’ has nothing to do with conveying someone on wheels. The Greek means ‘expelled, forced.’ This was not an anticipated vacation for Jesus.

Mark intends to say that Jesus’ human nature had an aversion to this experience, therefore the Holy Spirit ‘forced him.’ Later in his life Jesus’ human nature will have an aversion to his death, but the Father gave him no way out. Here at the baptism Mark begins a theme that runs through the whole gospel — the rejection of Jesus and his estrangement from all. The Holy Spirit begins it. Jesus’ disciples, his family, his nation, continue the theme. The Father completes the theme in Jesus’ cry of abandonment on the cross, “My God! My God! Why have your forsaken me?”

A strange theology to us. Mark has his reasons for developing this theme. There seem to be two streams of influence behind it. First, the Servant Songs of Isaiah, especially Isaiah 53. “He was despised, rejected. He has borne our griefs, smitten by God, and afflicted, bruised for our offenses. Upon him was the chastisement that made us whole. The Lord has placed upon him the iniquity of us all. It was the will of the Lord to bruise him . . . .” Such is the Old Testament background to Mark’s rejection theme. Secondly, apart from the Scriptures is the real life situation of the Roman Christians Mark addresses. They had recently endured horrendous persecution from Emperor Nero. They were betrayed by family and fellow Christians. They felt totally abandoned. Mark shows them a Jesus to whom they can relate. The expulsion of Jesus into the desert began what his cry on the cross completed. After all the rejection of Jesus throughout the gospel Mark gives his people a symbol of hope — an announcement that Jesus rose from the dead. Mark seems incapable however of letting go of this theme. So with what might be called an appendix to it, he closes his gospel with another abandonment. The women were told to announce the resurrection. Instead, “They fled from the tomb and said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid."