Sunday Scripture

By Father Paul Nord, O.S.B.

First Sunday of Lent, Year B

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

Genesis 6–9 contains the account of Noah and the Flood. First, God recognizes that humanity has grown terribly wicked. So God sends a flood to destroy all of humanity except for Noah the righteous man and his family. But first God commands Noah to build a wooden ark so that he and his family should survive. God also commands Noah to bring male-female pairs of the various living creatures into the ark – thus saving them from the destruction which human sin has caused.

While God is giving Noah the command to build the ark, God also promises to establish a covenant with Noah (Gen 6:18). This promise is fulfilled much later – in Genesis 9, which is our reading today. This is after the flood waters have receded, and after Noah, his family, and the various living creatures are able to exit the ark. In today’s reading, God speaks directly to Noah and his sons – establishing a covenant with them and their descendants. Interestingly, the living creatures – rescued by the ark – are also included in this covenant with God. Their inclusion is repeated three times – in verses 10, 12 and 15. Genesis 1 and 2 depict man and woman as the pinnacle of God’s creation – made in God’s image. Here in Genesis 9, God’s care is extended to both humanity and the other living creatures in God’s establishment of his covenant.

In this covenant, God gives a promise and a sign. God’s promise is that never again will God send a flood to destroy (almost) all the creatures of the earth. The sign which God gives is a “bow in the clouds” – a rainbow. God establishes this rainbow as a reminder of his covenant – and thus a reminder of his promise to never again destroy the earth’s creatures in this way.

In addition to the “rainbow” meaning, this Hebrew word for “bow” can also be used to describe a bow used as a weapon. Thus the bow – often a symbol of war – God uses here as a symbol of peace. After the destruction of the flood, God has set down his warrior bow, so that no more may die.

Our second reading, from 1 Peter, begins with two contrasts – the righteous vs. the unrighteous, and death vs. life. Christ is “righteous,” but we are “unrighteous.” “Christ suffered for sins once,” and Christ was “put to death in the flesh.” Suffering and death are the just punishment for us the unrighteous – but not for Christ who is righteous. Despite this, Christ accepted suffering and death for our sins so that we might be brought to new life. This is possible because Christ first “was brought to life in the Spirit.”

Next, our text says that Christ “went to preach to the spirits in prison, who had once been disobedient.” This is most likely a reference to the Noah and flood account of Genesis 6–9. This interpretation is made likely by the next line of our 1 Peter reading: “the days of Noah,” in which humanity was “saved through water” by God. We are told that the flood of Noah’s time “prefigured baptism, which saves you now.” Baptism “is not a removal of dirt from the body.” Instead, baptism is an “appeal to God ... through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” Baptism is not a washing, but rather a participation in Christ’s death and resurrection.

The final verse speaks of “angels, authorities, and powers” being subject to Christ. This describes spirits over which Christ has authority. This continues the theme that Christ “went to preach to the spirits in prison” – another expression of Christ’s authority over the spirits (3:19). Such authority is evidence of Christ’s divinity.

Mark 1 provides today’s gospel. Mark 1:1-8 introduces John the Baptist, who proclaims: “One mightier than I is coming after me.” Mark 1:9-11 describes Jesus being baptized in the Jordan River by John. At Jesus’ baptism, both the Spirit and the Father witness to Jesus’ identity. The Spirit does this by appearing like a dove, descending upon Jesus. The Father witnesses to Jesus’ identity by the voice from heaven proclaiming: “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased” (1:11).

Next is today’s gospel passage (Mark 1:12-15), in which “The Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert.” Four details are mentioned – “for forty days,” “tempted by Satan,” “among wild beasts,” and the “angels ministered to him.” Since Matthew and Luke provide much longer accounts of Jesus’ temptation in the desert, the details that Mark does mention are quite important. 

First, the “desert” is a place empty of humanity – where only “wild beasts” live. This emphasizes Jesus’ isolation as he is “tested.” Although “tempted (by Satan)” is the traditional translation, “tested (by Satan)” is an equally good translation. “The Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert” – thus God allows Satan to “test” Jesus. “This confrontation with evil is an essential element of Jesus’ ministry, for which he became man. After being tested by Satan, Jesus will confront unclean spirits repeatedly in Mark’s gospel. Jesus’ triumph over sin and death in his crucifixion is the climax of Jesus’ confrontation with evil – and his defeat of evil.

While Jesus is “tempted by Satan,” he is deprived of all human community, but he remains in ever-present union with God. “The angels ministered to him” (1:13) is an expression of this divine care. “Forty days” appears frequently in the Bible. For example, rain fell for forty days when Noah and company were in the ark. Moses remained on Mount Sinai with the Lord God for forty days in both Exodus 24 and 34. Elijah walked forty days to reach Mount Horeb (a.k.a. Mount Sinai) in 1 Kings 19 to encounter God.

The next two verses show Jesus immediately proclaiming, “The kingdom of God is at hand.” Jesus asserts that God’s authority has arrived, which necessarily includes the defeat of Satan, sin and death. Men and women must prepare for God’s kingdom by repenting and accepting his authority and redemption.