1 Peter 3:18-22
In the first two readings on this first Sunday of Lent we are reminded of the mercy of God and of his saving power through the waters of Holy Baptism. In the very first reading God speaks to Noah after the Great Flood and makes a covenant with him and all the Earth that he will never again destroy the Earth with water. (Note that he did not say that he would never again destroy the Earth… in the words of the old African American spiritual, “there will be no water, but the fire next time.”) Every time we see a rainbow after a good storm, Sacred Scripture tells us that this is a reminder of God’s love for and his Covenant with the human race.
It is noteworthy that in the story of Noah and the Ark and the Great Flood, it rained for 40 days and 40 nights upon the Earth. In the Gospel today we read that Jesus went into the desert for 40 days. Mark’s account does not give us great detail of what happened there, but the other Gospel of Matthew tells us that Jesus was tempted by Satan during that period, this was a time of testing for Jesus, just as the holy season of Lent is a time of testing for us. (cf. Matthew 4:1-11)
The second reading today from the First Epistle of Peter is one of particular doctrinal significance for the Christian faith, but also for the meaning of this Holy Season of Lent. In this reading Peter makes the analogy between the Great Flood and the saving of Noah’s family, and the Salvation brought through Baptism upon the individual soul. If anyone tells you that baptism doesn’t save you, you’ll want to cite this passage of Scripture, because in it Peter makes very clear that Baptism has the power to save when he says that the Great Flood “prefigured Baptism which saves you now.” (cf. 1 Peter 3:18-22) Why would any parent deny, as some deliberately do, such wonderful Saving Graces to their children?
Part of the purpose for this Holy Season is for the Church to journey together with those who are going to be baptized or received into full Communion with Holy Mother Church for the first time at Easter. This time is going to be a special time of prayer, and fasting, and penance for them, and so we journey with them for the next 40 days or so, and we pray with them, and fast with them, and give alms with them and for them. We remember them in the prayers of the Church, something already begun in the Lenten Liturgy of the Hours. We live Lent with those who are about to enter the Church so that we can better appreciate the mystery of our own faith.
The most important purpose of Lent in the life of the Catholic, however, is to prepare to celebrate the Lord’s Resurrection by re-examining our own lives, and recommitting ourselves in a renewed way to a life of truly following Jesus Christ and a relationship with him through prayer, self-denial, and charity. Many of us adopt a practice every year of “giving up something for Lent.” In no way am I saying that this is a bad practice, it is not. In fact, giving up something voluntarily that we otherwise might wish to have that is not innately sinful can be considered a kind of fasting, and that is a perfectly good Lenten discipline. But in our wealthy, Western societies of today, occasionally giving up coffee, or chocolate, or a favorite food, or gum (as a few common examples), are the kinds of little sacrifices we should be periodically making for our own spiritual discipline any time of the year.
During Lent, we should take our discipline a step further and begin to ask ourselves what it is in our lives that is keeping us from having a better relationship with God and His Holy Church. If we take an honest look at our lives and our relationship with the Lord, all of us can certainly find some things that shouldn’t be there. As we begin our bodily and spiritual discipline of Holy Lent, let us find what those habits, temperaments, pleasures of the world, and yes, what our sins might be, and let us give up those things for Lent. Only let us commit that all of those things which are keeping us from the relationship with God that we should be having won’t be returning to our lives after Easter, let us pledge to be rid of them once and for all.
It has been said of this holy season that it is like a 40-day retreat. Every year priests and deacons are made to go on a canonical retreat, and unless we have a good excuse we are required to be there. We might hear some wonderful talks and have some great camaraderie with our colleagues, but the real purpose of these retreats is our own refreshment and renewal both personally, as well as in our ministry. I have left for retreat dreading that I had to be away, not realizing how much I needed the retreat until after I returned. Then I was thankful to God for the little bit of time I got to spend with Him in this way. Lent should be like that for all of us. Let us use this time to cleanse ourselves of what need not be in our lives, make a good integral confession, and be ready to really celebrate at Easter.