Commentary: 1st Sunday Lent Year B


The readings today have a baptismal theme since this is the day that catechumens report to the Bishop for the Rite of Election, who officially recognizes them as the elect of God in these final weeks before their baptism. “Even during Lent, as we take heed of our sins, we can never forget that though we have been unrighteous, unholy, unkind, undisciplined, and at times unreachable, we have never been unloved. Yes, God put a rainbow in the sky.” ~ Msgr. Pope

First Reading: Genesis 9:8–15

“During the Lenten season, the rationale for organizing the first reading is not on the principle of harmony — which means you relate the Old Testament to the New Testament gospel reading by some kind of typology, or clear thematic link — but rather according to salvation history, a chronological overview of major events in the history of salvation from the Old Testament.” ~ Dr. Brant Pitre

“The first reading depicts God’s covenant with Noah, which undergirds everything else. It has to do with the promise of an ultimate state of reconciliation between God and the world. The flood of merciless punishment belongs to the never-recurring past.” ~ Balthasar, LW, 173

8 Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, 9 “As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you,

covenant: A covenant makes you a part of God’s family and under His protection. The Noahic covenant remains in force as long as “the earth remains” (8:22), that is, “for all future generations” (9:12) (CCC 71).

10 and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. 11 I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” 12 God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: 13 I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.

“Do you know what a rainbow is? It is a combination of fire and water. Yes, there it is: the water of our baptism and the fire of God’s loving Spirit shining through that very water, form the rainbow in the sky. It is the sign of God’s fiery love and the water of our salvation.” ~ Msgr. Pope

“For the ancient pagans, the rainbow was a sign of the god’s displeasure and it was used to inflict divine punishment. Now, God uses this sign to indicate His appeasement.” ~ St. Charles Borromeo Bible Study

The Hebrew term for a rainbow is the same term used for a hunting (27:3) or military bow (Lam 2:4). This has given rise to different explanations of the sign. (1) Some see the rainbow as a sign of peace. They picture God hanging up his bow in the sky, retiring it from service and signifying that he has ended his battle with the sinful world. (2) Others interpret the rainbow as a sign of God’s covenant oath. They envision the bow pulled back and pointed up at heaven, signifying that God will be forever faithful to his pledge, for he threatens himself with a curse should he fail to uphold the terms of the Noahic covenant. ~ Hahn, S., & Mitch, C. (2010). Genesis: With Introduction, Commentary, and Notes. (Revised Standard Version and Second Catholic Edition, Eds.) (p. 29). San Francisco: Ignatius Press.

God’s rainbow is really a warbow — the bow of war, the bow of battle.  Some scholars have even suggested, over the centuries–if you think about the rainbow as God’s military bow transformed into  an ornament of great beauty, that hostility has ceased and that there is no arrow in the bow–that, if He has thrown the bow into the sky that way, the only place the arrow could have gone was into His own heart.’ I wonder if Noah ever could have pondered, ‘If God has thrown His bow into the sky, where is His arrow, and why does it point thus heavenward into His heart?’ And, of course, the rest of the story of the Bible will pick up on that idea–it’s only as God takes the judgment to Himself, into His Son Jesus Christ, that we might enjoy full and final reconciliation with Him. ~ Sinclair Ferguson

14 When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, 15 I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh.

Psalm: Psalm 25:4–9

The basic theme here is that God, who is good and merciful, blesses those who keep his covenant.

Second Reading: 1 Peter 3:18–22

“Since it is Lent, the second reading is not on an independent track like it is in ordinary time, but rather is thematically chosen. Since Lent is a time of preparation for catechumens who receive the sacrament of baptism at Easter, we have this reading today. And so already, in this first week of Lent, the Church is looking forward to that reception of the sacrament by those who are coming to the Church and reminding us that baptism isn’t just an outward sign of inward faith. It’s not just a public testimony to our belief in Christ, it is a saving sacrament that has the power to cleanse us from sin. Just like the flood cleanses the world, the water of baptism cleanses us from sin and prepares us for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.” ~ Dr. Pitre

In our reading today, Saint Paul is reminding them of the effect of their baptism – they now bear the sign of the covenant upon their soul.

18 For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God.

Jesus has opened the way to the Father. In baptism we become the children of God and can call Him as Abba (cf. Gal 4:6; Rom 8).

He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, 19 in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison,

To the souls in sheol (hades, purgatory), the abode of the dead. All the souls who were destined for heaven but could not yet enter because heaven was closed. Josephus, a first century Pharisee and historian, gives us this description of sheol: “Now as to Hades, wherein the souls of the righteous and unrighteous are detained … a place in the world not regularly finished; a subterraneous region, wherein the light of this world does not shine … This region is allotted as a place of custody for souls, in which angels are appointed as guardians to them, who distribute to them temporary punishments, agreeable to everyone’s behaviour and manners … it is prepared for a day afore determined by God, in which one righteous sentence shall deservedly be passed upon all men; when the unjust and those that have been disobedient to God … shall be adjudged to … everlasting punishment … while the just shall obtain an incorruptible and never-fading kingdom. These are now indeed confined in Hades, but not in the same place wherein the unjust are confined.” [Flavius Josephus (ca. A.D. 70), Discourse to the Greeks Concerning Hades, 1-2] 

“Christ descended into hades in order to acquaint the patriarchs and prophets with His redeeming mission.” [Tertullian (between A.D. 208-212), The Soul 55,2]

20 who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water.

It is interesting that the Chinese character for “large ship” is made up of the characters for “eight souls.” ~ St. Charles Borromeo Bible Study

21 And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you

saves: “The Greek word translated here as “saves” is σώζει (sozei); it means to be delivered from present danger. Yes, we have been snatched from the raging flood waters of this sin-soaked world and from Satan, who seeks to devour us.” ~ Msgr. Pope

Notice how Saint Peter draws the parallel between baptism and Noah’s escape. The flood was a prototype of baptism.

“The water of the flood is a type of baptism because it both punished evil people and saved the good, just as baptism expels evil spirits and saves those who turn to Christ. This shows the great power of baptism, and how much we need it.” [Andreas (ca. 7th century), Catena]

—not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience,

The goal of baptism is a renewal of the soul, a transformation of the mind and heart, in order to follow the covenant.

through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22 who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.

Today’s second reading refers back to the story of Noah in our first reading.“While we quickly associate water with baptism, the image is really a double one: wood and water. If it were not for the wood of the ark, the waters would have overwhelmed them. So, too for us: the waters of our baptism are rendered effective by Jesus on the wood of the cross.” ~ Msgr. Pope

Gospel: Mark 1:12–15

12 And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.

The journey of Jesus into the wilderness to be tested and tempted by the devil is the activity, it’s the work of the Holy Spirit in Christ after his being baptized by John.

“No sooner was the glory of the hour of the Baptism over than there came the battle of the temptations. One thing stands out here in such a vivid way that we cannot miss it. It was the Spirit who thrust Jesus out into the wilderness for the testing time. The very Spirit who came upon him at his baptism now drove him out for his test.” ~ William Barclay

“Soon after He had been baptized He performed a fast of forty days by Himself, and He taught and informed us by His example that, after we have received forgiveness of sins in baptism, we should devote ourselves to vigils, feasts, prayers and other spiritually fruitful things, lest when we are sluggish and less vigilant the unclean spirit expelled from our heart by baptism may return, and finding us fruitless in spiritual riches, weigh us down again with a sevenfold pestilence, and our last state would then be worse than the first.” (Saint Bede the Venerable (ca. A.D. 720), Homilies on the Gospels, 1,12).

13 He was in the wilderness forty days,

wilderness: erémos in Greek. It can mean just like a wild place, where there isn’t any habitation, any human dwelling. But it also often means the desert.

The number 40 in the Bible symbolizes a time of testing. Noah’s 40 days during the flood (Genesis 7 — 1st reading). Moses 40 days on the mountain. Israel’s 40 years in the desert.

tempted by Satan;

Satan: Jesus is a man at war with Satan, satanas in Greek, “the adversary,” who is the enemy of humankind and was known as the accuser of Israel.

and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

Jesus lives between the wild beasts and angels, between bodily danger and supernatural protection, between the extremes of all creation ~ Balthasar, LW, 172 

Mark is unique in saying that Jesus was with the wild beasts and angels. Why would he add this detail?

The wild beasts may symbolize the beginning of the Messianic age as paradise regained (Isaiah 11:6-9; 65:25; Hosea 2:18); or it may symbolize the evil with which Jesus contends (Psalm 22:13-22; Isaiah 13:1-22; Ezekiel 34:5, 8, 25). ~ St. Charles Borromeo Bible Study

Jesus stands between the animal and angelic as man — the hybrid of material and spiritual — harmonizing these two realms and presiding over the reconciliation of these seeming opposed worlds. Jesus shows us the proper balance. He himself is the knitting together back of creation. ~ Bishop Robert Barron

“In his short account of the temptations, Mark brings into relief the parallels between Adam and Jesus, stressing how Jesus “suffers through” the quintessential human drama… The desert – the opposite image of the garden – becomes the place of reconciliation and healing. Wild beasts are the most concrete threat that the rebellion of creation and the power of death posed to man. But here they become man’s friends, as they once were in paradise. Peace is restored, the peace that Isaiah proclaims for the days of the Messiah (Isaiah 11:6). Once sin has been overcome and man’s harmony with God restored, creation is reconciled, too (Rom 8:19).” ~ Ratzinger, JN, 27

14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near;

“Jesus speaks of this people using many images, particularly in the parables having to do with growth. Yet as he does so, it becomes apparent that the “soon” of the imminent eschatology characteristic of John the Baptist and Qumran passes over with Jesus into the “now” of Christology. Jesus himself is God’s action, his coming, his reigning. In Jesus’ mouth, “Kingdom of God” does not mean some thing or place but the present action of God. One may therefore translate the programmatic declaration of Mark 1:15, “the Kingdom of God is near at hand”, as “God is near.” We perceive once more the connection with Jesus, with his person; he himself is God’s nearness. Wherever he is, is the Kingdom. In this respect we must recast Loisy’s statement: The Kingdom was promised, what came was Jesus. Only in this way can we understand aright the paradox of promise and fulfillment.” ~Ratzinger, J. (1996). Called to Communion: Understanding the Church Today. (A. Walker, Trans.) (pp. 22–23). San Francisco: Ignatius Press.

repent, and believe in the good news.

Repent: The Greek word translated as “repent” is μετανοετε (metanoeite), which means more literally “to come to a change of mind.” Yes, the Lord offers us a new mind and heart, a whole new way of thinking—new priorities, new visions, new understandings, and new goals. So much of the battle we face involves our mind. “Mind” here does not refer to the brain but to that deepest inner part of us where we “live,” where we deliberate and are alone with our self and our God. Through baptism the Lord begins a process that renews this inner self, day by day. As our mind gets clearer and our heart grows purer, our whole life is gradually transformed. This leads to inner peace, to a serene conscience, confident and loving before God. ~ Msgr. Pope

Saint Bernard: “Repentance is the feeling of a person irritated with himself.”

Father Francis F. Moloney, S.D.B.: “the basic meaning of ‘repent’ is a radical turning back.  An almost physical image is conjured up, disclosing an urgent need to stop in one’s tracks, turn from all that leads away from the Kingdom, and become part of that Kingdom by believing in the Good News.”

Monsignor Romano Guardini: “Repentance is an appeal to the deepest mystery of the creative power of God.  Repentance does not cover up sin.  On the contrary, repentance is truth.  It tries to see things as they really are.  Repentance is itself a gift.  When man comes to God with his repentance, the living God is already in him and has given him repentance.  Something has not been merely covered up: I have been born again.  I begin again.”

The sweetness of the apple makes up for the bitterness of the root. The hope of gain makes pleasant the perils of the sea. The expectation of health mitigates the nauseousness of medicine. One who desires the kernel breaks the nut. So one who desires the joy of a holy conscience swallows down the bitterness of penance. Commentary on the Gospels (St. Jerome). ~ Oden, T. C., & Hall, C. A. (Eds.). (1998). Mark (Revised) (p. 17). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

How is it possible for God to be tempted?

Temptation is brought to fulfillment by three stages: suggestion, delight, and consent. And we in temptation generally fall through delight and then through consent, for being begotten of the sin of the flesh we bear within us that through which we suffer conflict. But God incarnate… came into the world without sin and so suffers no conflict within himself. He could therefore be tempted by suggestion, but the delight of sin could never touch his mind. So all these temptations of the devil are from without, not from within Him. (Gregory the Great, Sermon 16; trans. Oden and Hall, p. 17)

Jesus experienced temptation in the exact same way that we did, but he never gave into the temptation through either delight or consent.

From this episode our first lesson is that human life on earth is a life of warfare, and the first thing Christians must expect is to be tempted by the devil. As Scripture tells us, we have to be prepared for temptation, for it is written: “When you enter God’s service, prepare your soul for an ordeal” (Sirach 2:1). For this reason the Lord desires the newly baptized and recent converts to find comfort in his own example. Reading in the gospel that Christ too was tempted by the devil immediately after he was baptized, they will not grown fainthearted and fearful if they experience keener temptations from the devil after their conversion than before… The second lesson Christ desires to impress upon us by his own example is that we should not lightly expose ourselves to temptation, for we read that it was the Holy Spirit who led Jesus into the wilderness. Mindful of our frailty rather, we must be on the watch, praying not to be put to the test, and keeping ourselves clear of every occasion to temptation. (John Justus Landsberg, Complete Works I, 120; trans. E. Barnecut, p. 30-31)

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