Thursday, March 23, 2006

1st Sunday in Lent (B)
A Matter of Life and Death

Readings: Gen 9:8-15; 1 Pet 3:18-22; Mark 1:12-15

My sisters and brothers, have you ever had the experience of expecting to be splashed with cold water? You know it’s going to happen, you know it’s going to be shockingly unpleasant, but you also know that there’s little you can do about it. So, you brace yourself, you grit your teeth, you tense your muscles, you prepare yourself mentally for the impact. I must confess that that is often my reaction to the season of Lent.

Let’s face it, Lent is uncomfortable. It gets under your skin. We’re expected to do certain things with an intensity that we’re not quite used to in ordinary time. We’re expected to reduce our more frivolous activities, to control our appetites, so as to be more intensely focused on prayer and self-examination. We’re also encouraged to do more to reach out to those in need. Lent is uncomfortable. I brace myself to meet it, as I would a bucket of cold water.

Why then do we submit ourselves to our Lenten discipline? What’s at stake? And how might we go through it more gracefully and fruitfully? On this first Sunday of Lent, our readings help us to address these questions by turning our attention to two places: the waters of the flood and the wilderness of temptation. These are places of discomfort and desolation, of death and destruction. And yet, God leads His favoured ones into them – first Noah and then Jesus. More than that, the word leads is clearly an understatement. Mark says that the Spirit drove Jesus out into the wilderness. And, as for Noah, we know that it was literally a matter of life and death: build the ark or perish in the waters of the flood. What is happening here? What can we learn that might help us on our Lenten journey?

The first important observation we make is that, unpleasant as they may be, the waters and the wilderness are places of transition. Earlier in the story of the flood, we are told that humankind had become so wicked that God regretted His own creation. Meant for life eternal in the bosom of our creator, we had chosen rather the path that leads to death. And so the flood was intended to wipe the slate clean, to allow God to recreate the earth starting with Noah, God’s favoured one. Terrible and destructive as the flood waters were, they were meant to be a place of transition, from death to new and more abundant life.

Much the same can be said for the wilderness of Jesus’ temptation. Here, the gospel writer is making an association with, among other things, the forty years that Israel spent in the wilderness. Uncomfortable as that long trek was, it was an important and necessary phase in God’s plan to free God’s people from slavery in Egypt, and to lead them to new life in the Promised Land. Further, in Mark’s description of the temptation of Jesus, we are told that although Jesus was tempted by Satan in the wilderness, he also experienced communion with the wild beasts, and the angels looked after him. And it is out of this experience that Jesus emerged to begin his public ministry, proclaiming the Good News from God.

We see then, that more than simply places of discomfort and desolation, the waters and the wilderness are also places of power. God has an ultimate purpose in leading his favoured ones through them. In doing so, God demonstrates His awesome power, which is able to bring life and renewal out of death and destruction. And not just for Noah and Jesus, but also, through them, for the rest of creation. See, I establish my Covenant with you, and… with every living creature to be found with you… everything that lives on the earth.

Is this not the deeper significance of our Lenten discipline? Like Noah and Jesus, are we not also God’s favoured ones? Are we not also being led to renounce all that smacks of death and destruction, so as to walk in newness of life? And in so doing, are we not also being asked to be channels of God’s life-giving power to the rest of our world? How then do we do this? What is it about Lent that helps us to achieve all this? There is one final but crucial aspect of our readings that invites our reflection.

For God’s favoured ones, for Noah and for Jesus, the waters and the wilderness are also places of testing. They test the one crucial quality that enables Noah and Jesus to cooperate with God in accomplishing His great plan of salvation: they test their obedience. Noah is asked to undertake the arduous task of building and populating the ark. And, in spite of being ridiculed by others, he faithfully carries out God’s instructions.

Fresh from his baptism in the Jordan, Jesus submits to the Spirit who drives him out into the wilderness to be tempted. And we know that this is but a preview of Jesus’ ultimate submission. The wilderness of temptation is but a foretaste of the desolation of the cross. As we heard in the second reading: Christ himself, innocent though he was, died once for sins, died for the guilty, to lead us to God.

The way from death to life necessarily passes through the discipline of obedience. It was so for Noah and for Jesus. It is so for us as well. And it is in the uncomfortable season of Lent that we allow our obedience to be tested and strengthened. It is through the discipline of Lent that we are helped to discern, in our lives, the life-giving from the death-dealing, so as to give ourselves more wholeheartedly to God. But our obedience is not a new commitment. Rather is it a reminder and a renewal of an earlier commitment: the commitment made in the waters of our baptism. As we heard in the second reading, our baptism was a pledge made to God from a good conscience. In submitting to the discipline of Lent, we are helped to live this pledge more faithfully and fruitfully for the life of the world.

My sisters and brothers, this is what is at stake in our Lenten discipline. Lent is nothing less than a matter of life and death. And not just for ourselves but, through us, for the rest of creation.

Today, even as I brace myself for the cold water that is Lent, I invite you to join me in making our own the prayer of the psalmist: Lord, make (us) know your ways. Lord teach (us) your paths. Make (us) walk in your truth, and teach (us): for you are God (our) saviour.

No comments:

Post a Comment