Saturday, February 25, 2012

Homily for 1st Sunday of Lent

Homily for the
1st Sunday of Lent
Feb. 26, 2012
1 Pet 3: 18-22
Gen 9: 8-15
Christian Brothers, Iona College
St. Vincent’s Hospital, Harrison, N.Y.

“A few persons, 8 in all, were saved thru water. This prefigures Baptism, which saves you now” (1 Pet 3: 20-21).

All of our readings this evening point to Baptism in some fashion. That isn’t obvious in the story of Noah, but St. Peter makes the connection thru typology, that traditional Christian way of reading the OT and seeing in it foreshadowings of Christ, or as the Petrine text puts it, it “prefigures” some aspect of the Christian mystery.

“Baptism saves you now,” Peter says, by “appealing to God for a clear conscience” (3:21). That is, it cleanses us of sin and thus makes us appealing to God and worthy of the resurrection—that feast, that greatest of the Christian mysteries, which thru our Lenten observance we’re preparing to celebrate, and that final act of our personal salvation which we look forward to.

In Noah’s time, the flood cleansed not the human conscience like Baptism, but the world, by destroying all those who had been perverted by sin. “The Lord saw how great was man’s wickedness on earth, and how no desire that [men’s] heart conceived was ever anything but evil, [and the Lord] regretted that he had made man on the earth,” Genesis says as it introduces the story of the flood (6:5-6). So God cleansed the earth, leaving only one upright man and his family to start human life, human society, human culture afresh. When Noah and his family and all the animals emerge from the ark, we’re presented with a new creation, and Noah is even given the same command that was given to Adam, to “be fertile and multiply and fill the earth,” and he’s given all the creatures as food, as Adam was (9:1-3).

The cleansing by water signaled by Baptism is a new start for every Christian—most obviously for catechumens with real personal histories to be wiped clean when they receive the sacraments at the Easter Vigil. The new start isn’t so obvious for the innocent newborn bearing only original sin. But in either case it’s a fresh start, a union with Jesus Christ, the 2d Adam, the inaugurator of the new creation.

All of us, at whatever point in life we commit ourselves to follow Jesus Christ, continue to pass thru a world aptly compared to a desert—a place where, like Jesus, we may meet God but also a place where, like him, we confront evil and are tested (Mark 1:12-13). Unlike Jesus, we often fail the test, succumb to evil. And so we remain in need of cleansing. Conversion is never a done deal, never a once-and-for-all matter. So Lent beckons us every year to “repent and believe in the Gospel” (Mark 1:15).

Jesus Casting Out Satan, by Carl Heinrich Bloch

Baptism isn’t mentioned explicitly in the gospel reading, but we all know that Jesus’ baptism by John immediately preceded his going out into the desert to fast and pray. It’s noteworthy that Mark says, “The Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert” (1:12). That’s the very Spirit that had just descended upon him “like a dove” as the heavenly voice declared, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased” (1:10-11). The Spirit “drives” God’s “beloved Son,” compels him to go, into the desert. Just anointed by the Spirit, just identified as the Son of God, Jesus must go out alone into the wilderness to be with his Father, must go into the wilderness like Israel coming out of Egypt and like the prophet Elijah, for a deeper encounter with God. But Jesus won’t really be alone out there, because the desert is also where the demons lurk and where Jesus must confront himself, all his human urges and feelings that might distract him from his mission as the Anointed One of God. He was tested in every way that we are, yet did not sin (Heb 4:15).

In the early centuries of Christianity, many devout men and women, like St. Anthony, imitated Jesus by going into the deserts of Egypt and Syria for the same reasons: to seek God in prayer and in labor and in silence, to pray, “Your ways, O Lord, make known to me; teach me your paths, guide me in your truth and teach me, for you are God my Savior” (Ps 25:4-5); to wrestle with their demons, all the temptations that our flesh is inclined toward; to purify their minds, their intentions, their desires, their wills thru unrelenting self-denial and submission to God.

Jesus and the desert fathers and mothers of the early centuries remind us that our own commitment to God—in Baptism or by religious vow—is never finished. We have to continue to seek God, and we have to do that ourselves even if we have guidance and support. No one can seek God for us. We have to struggle against temptations, no matter how “pleasing” we may be to God so far; the Father was “well pleased” with Jesus, but Jesus still had to prove his obedience by resisting sin. No one can substitute for us in fighting against sin. Unlike Jesus, who defeated all the lures of the devil, we have to repent repeatedly. No one else can repent for us, and renew our belief in the Gospel, in the Father’s love for us, in the sureness that his way is the right way, the only way, toward happiness and salvation.

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