18Feb 18 February. First Sunday of Lent

1st Reading: Genesis 9:8-15

The rainbow as the sign of God’s covenant with mankind

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

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: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, 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.

Responsorial Psalm (from Ps 26)

Resp: Your ways, O Lord, are love and truth, to those who keep your covenant

Lord, make me know your ways.
Lord, teach me your paths.
Make me walk in your truth, and teach me:
for you are God my saviour. R./

Remember your mercy, Lord,
and the love you have shown from of old.
In your love remember me,
because of your goodness, O Lord. R./

The Lord is good and upright.
He shows the path to those who stray,
he guides the humble in the right path;
he teaches his way to the poor. R./

2nd Reading: 1 Peter 3:18-22

Christ’s sacrifice gives baptism its cleansing power

Christ suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, 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. And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you – not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.

Gospel: Mark 1:12-15

The beginning of Jesus’ public ministry

The Spirit immediately drove Jesus out into the desert. He was in the desert forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him. Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”


The challenge of Lent

The spirit is unwilling but the flesh is strong. We start diets, pay gym memberships and start a whole load of other things that willing spirits complete. But a lot of our spirits are not that willing really. We have a series of excuses and devices to justify not completing something. The body’s strong demands for cream cakes and sofa-time will easily coax the unwilling spirit to yield. Logic, reason and bargaining bring our brains into the struggle and usually as an ally to the body: we can work it off tomorrow; a break can be good; I wasn’t feeling very well; this is silly, or, nobody cares!

Under pressure and scrutiny from others it is easy to tame the flesh and appear to be doing things well. We are all capable of triumph when we know we are being watched. Fear of foul judgments from our doctors, employers, family, friends and supporters make perseverance easier. The challenge of Lent is to test the courage of our own spirit with no supervision other than ourselves.

The old fasting rules were strict. You were allowed one meal a day and two small snacks. There was a total ban on meat and strong alcohol. Fish, beer and grape musts were permitted. We traditionally ate the last bit of butter, egg and milk in pancakes because these items were also forbidden. Surviving 40 days on a near-vegan diet is simply too much to ask of people. We have consequently always softened Lent and we only gave up on one thing. That one thing was usually sweets for children and either alcohol or smoking for adults. But the idea of sacrificing red wine or chocolate for 40 days would not be a popular suggestion today. It is so big that many of us will either ignore Lent completely or abandon it at the first honourable opportunity.

We usually refer to our spirit as a soul. The soul is not some sort of neutrino trapped inside a body. The soul is our innermost being. Everybody has a soul whether they believe in God or not. Beneath the physical façade of who we are we have a part of us that we rarely acknowledge and barely discuss. When we encounter a person who truly understands and accepts us we often describe that person as a soul-mate. We know our souls best as the part of us that loves. Maybe knowing that is enough?

The spiritual side of Lent is as much about indulging the soul as it is about taming the body. Reminding our physical bodies that they are not the only show in town is no bad idea. Lent permits our innermost desire for good to exert its authority for a short while. The whims, passions, reactions and habits of our physicality usually dictate our decisions. Handing the reins to the well-intentioned, loving part of us can only make the world a better place.

Lent is not a season that people particularly welcome, but setting a 40-day challenge to let our inner-goodness triumph should excite us. If you have an unpleasant practice that you know causes upset to yourself or to others, isn’t a 40-day regime, where your loving inner-beauty helps you to improve yourself, a challenge we should really enjoy?  (Fergal Mac Eoinín)


Before describing miracles and ministry, Mark reports how the Spirit “drove” Jesus into the desert where he stayed for 40 days, letting himself be tempted by Satan. In that time he lived among the wild beasts, and angels served him. These short lines are a summary of the temptations or basic tests lived out by Jesus up until he was put to death on the cross.

Jesus didn’t have an easy or quiet life. Yes, he was guided by the Spirit, but he also felt the powers of evil in his own flesh. His passionate self-giving to God’s project has brought him to an existence torn by conflicts and tensions. It is from him that we his followers need to learn to live through times of testing.

  • The Spirit drove him into the desert … The Spirit doesn’t lead him toward a comfortable life. The Spirit brings him to paths of testing, dangers and temptations. It’s always risky to seek God’s reign and God’s justice, to announce God without falsification, to work for a more human world. It was risky for Jesus and will be for his followers.
  • He stayed there for 40 days … The desert represents the scene in which Jesus’ whole life takes place. This inhospitable and completely unwelcoming place symbolizes testing and difficulties. It’s the best place to learn to live by what’s essential, but also the most dangerous place for someone left abandoned to one’s own forces.
  • Tempted by Satan … Satan signifies the enemy, the power that is hostile to God and to those who work for God’s reign. In temptation one discovers that there is something in us of truth and lies, of light and darkness, of faithfulness to God and of complicity with injustice. Throughout his life, Jesus was aware of Satan in the most unexpected places. One day he rebukes Peter with these words: Get away from me, Satan, for your thoughts are not those of God . We need to live through times of testing, just like him, paying attention to what can lead us away from God.
  • And angels looked after him … The angels, the most kind beings in creation, suggest God’s closeness, the One who blesses, cares for and sustains him. Thus Jesus will live: defending himself from Antipas, the one called “Fox”, and seeking his Father’s power in his nocturnal prayer.

We need to live these difficult times with our eyes and heart fixed on Jesus. It is the Spirit of God that is driving us toward the desert at present. From this crisis will come one day a Church that is more human and more faithful to her Lord. (José Antonio Pagola)

What the rainbow says

The rainbow is always a surprise and mysteriously beguiling. It was a stroke of genius to link the rainbow to God’s covenant promise, to remind us of God’s faithfulness to all creation. We need such signs and reminders and when we come across them we are grateful. Where do we find God’s presence refracted? All around, if we have eyes to see and perhaps chiefly in other people.  (Kieran O’Mahony)

Children of the Desert

As pilgrims  a group of us visited Bethlehem, Nazareth and Jerusalem in the Holy Land. We stood on the Mount of the Beatitudes and swam in the Sea of Galilee and  in the Dead Sea (not a pleasant experience!). We walked part of the old road from Jerusalem to Jericho, and stood on the place in Cana where Jesus changed the water into wine. In Jerusalem itself we  knelt at the place where he was crucified. Everywhere, we  read the appropriate gospel passage. It was a moving experience all the way. But my own strongest impression was of the desert where Christ spent forty days before starting his public life.

It is not surprising that the three great world religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, were all born in the desert. It was through the desert that Moses led the Israelites from slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land. It was from that desert that John the Baptist came to herald the Messiah and soon after Jesus followed to proclaim himself Messiah. After my visit there, I came to realise the significance of the desert. The desert is a purgatory man must pass through to reach paradise. What is impressive about the desert is its sheer aridness. There is no vegetation, no bird life and, apart from the odd tiny lizard, almost no animals.

The silence is almost total. In that bleak landscape, nothing comes between man and his God. One either discovers God or succumbs to despair. It is no wonder that those Bedouins who ply the salt trade following their caravans across the desert are deeply religious. No life thrives here except the inner life. It is not surprising that it was the Desert Fathers who created that great institution dedicated to fostering the inner life, Western monasticism. It has so profoundly marked Christianity that we are all now, in a sense, children of the desert.

Living now as many of us do, in built-up areas, piled high on top of each other in high-rise apartments, bombarded day and night with the roar of city traffic and the blare of electronic music, we are in danger of losing our desert roots. And with that our inner life. We need to create a time and a space to nurture our spiritual lives. Lent is such a time. The Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert and he remained there for forty days. Like Jesus, we should let the Holy Spirit lead us out into the desert this Lent where we can confront the devils that haunt our lives, and like him too, triumph over them. That is the freedom, dignity, and gift that is offered in today’s gospel.

Opposite forces

For most of us, Lent does not have the impact it used to have. It doesn’t affect the lives of Christians as visibly as Ramadan affect the lives of Muslims. Still, there are real benefits from taking Lent seriously. As a community of faith we are on a journey that culminates in Easter Sunday. The gospel for today (first Sunday of Lent) is always about the temptation of Jesus. Mark’s account of the temptation is far shorter than Matthew’s or Luke’s. There is no dialogue between Jesus and Satan and the details of the temptations are not spelled out in any way. Instead we have that enigmatic statements that Jesus was with the wild beasts and that angels ministered to him.

We could interpret the wild beasts and angels as opposing forces. The “wild beasts” could mean that Jesus’ relationship with God was put to the test, enticing him to put his own wishes at the centre of his life. The angels, in contrast, support Jesus in his struggle, helping him to make the fundamental choice for God. There is some parallel between this story and our own lives. We too can find our best convictions, our deepest values, being put to the test. The values of the gospel do not sit easily with today’s competitive, self-assertive world. The pressure to compromise our values can be very strong. Indeed, we can feel very alone as Jesus must have felt very alone in the wilderness.

It is good to remember that we are not alone, any more than Jesus was alone in the wilderness. The Lord’s ministering, empowering and comforting presence is always at hand. That was the opening message of Jesus as soon as he stepped out of the wilderness, ‘the time has come; the kingdom of God is close at hand’. The angels will minister to us; the Lord will stand by us. He has given us and will continue to give us all that we need. God is constantly at work among us and within us. Like Saint Paul we can say, ‘I can do all things in him who strengthens me’.

Shun not the Struggle

A way of looking at life is to see it as a struggle between sin and grace, selfishness and holiness. Our time on earth will be successful in the measure that we put aside sin and try to live by the grace of God. Today’s Scriptures show two contrasting reactions to temptation. The first humans, Adam and Eve, are imagined as preferring their own inclinations to the will of God. Jesus, the Saviour, on the contrary resisted temptation, remaining faithful to what God the Father required of him. St Paul reflects on how these choices affect ourselves: Adam’s sin brought trouble on all, but we are saved and offered new life because of the fidelity of Christ.

An old priest who was blind for many years before his death, liked to urge his penitents to renew their efforts with these inspirational lines:

“We are not here to play,
to dream, to drift.
We have good work to do,
and loads to lift.
Shun not the struggle.
Face it. ‘Tis God’s gift.”

Temptation in one form or another is an unavoidable part of life. If we honestly examine our daily experience, we can find many aspects of temptation: impulses or tendencies counter to the right way of doing things. To justify away these temptations, to make them socially acceptable and politically correct, is itself an insidious temptation. We want to dictate for ourselves what is right and wrong, to draw for ourselves the boundaries of “acceptable” behaviour, unburdened by any notions about the will of God. This is rather like Adam demanding to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Our real growth to Christian maturity starts when we acknowledge and accept the vocation of struggling against temptation, to achieve the kind of behaviour and attitudes Jesus expects of us.

Saor sinn ó’n gCathú

Is gné den saol nach féidir an cathú a sheachaint i bhfoirm amháin nó i gceann eile. Má dhéanaimid ár n-eispéireas laethúil a scrúdú go hionraic, is féidir linn a lán gnéithe den cathú  a fháil amach: tá impulses nó tendencies a chuireann sin as an mbealach ceart chun rudaí mícheart a dhéanamh. Chun na fírinní sin a laghdiú, chun iad a dhéanamh inghlactha go sóisialta agus go polaitiúil, is é féin cathú an-bhaolach. Is mian linn a dhearbhú dúinn féin cad atá ceart agus mícheart, chun teorainneacha iompraíochta “ionghlactha” a tharraingt dúinn féin, gan aon mhionsonraí maidir le toil Dé. Tá sé seo cosúil le Adam a éilíonn go n-itheadh sé ó’n crann a thug eolas faoi mhaith agus olc. Tosaíonn ár fíor fhás d’aibíocht Chríostaí nuair a aithnímid glór Dé agus go nglacann muid leis an ngairm atá againn, an cineál iompraíochta agus dearcadh atá ag Íosa a bhaint amach dúinn féin.


One Response

  1. Pádraig McCarthy

    Genesis 9:8-15
    God promising that the rainbow, where light turns the rain into beauty, as a reminder not to send another such flood! Like tying a knot in your handkerchief in days gone by, or an alarm on your mobile phone, to put out the bin? We know, of course, as people did then, that it’s not God who needs reminding.
    The covenant is not just with humankind – it’s with every living creature. The one covenant covers us all.
    The waters of the flood in the Biblical story gave rise a new birth and the first covenant, as the waters of Baptism do for us. Forty days – the number a code for a life-changing experience, like Moses’ 40 days on Sinai, the 40 years in the desert, Elijah 40 days to get to Horeb, Jesus’ forty days in the desert, the forty days from Easter to Ascension. Our 40 days of Lent: may it be a life-changing experience.
    I came across the term “rainbow baby.” It’s a term used sometimes when the birth of a child follows the loss of a child in miscarriage or stillbirth or neonatal death. Light into darkness, hope into grief. Remember those who have lost a child in such a way, where expectation results in – nothing, emptiness, hope shattered, preparations without the welcome. Then the mixed feelings, perhaps, with a new pregnancy before the grieving is over (but will it ever be?). Perhaps feelings of guilt – I shouldn’t forget the child I lost; there should not be this joy lest it cancel the remembering. Remember the pain of those longing for a child, without success. Remember the totally other pain – the desperation of being pregnant along with the sense of being totally unable to face the coming months, the birth, the years of care following. Remember the lost unborn children, 66 million every year. We must find a better way. Metanoia.

    1 Peter 3:18-22
    “He went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison.” The harrowing of hell. Why go, unless it is to proclaim good news? Eight persons saved in the ark: the whole human race! Many Baptism fonts, older ones, and baptisteries, are octagonal: seven days of creation, then the new First Day of the new week: symbol of resurrection. “The seventh age will be our Sabbath, a day that knows no evening, but is followed by the day of the Lord, an everlasting eighth day, hallowed by the resurrection of Christ.” Augustine, De Civitate Dei XXII, 30. We are already living the Eighth Day.

    Mark 1:12-15:Jesus has just been baptised by John and declared beloved of God. Empty words? No – the truth of them has to be tested in the desert for 40 days. Over 20 places in Ireland have “Dysart” or “diseart” in their names, recalling the “deserts” transplanted from Egypt by founders of monasteries who chose this way to be followers of Jesus. The desert of Skellig Mhichíl, of Glendalough. Desertmore, Desertserges, Desertmartin, Kildysart, even simply Desert (Clare, Cork, Kerry) or Dysart (Waterford, Kilkenny, Louth, Roscommon, Westmeath, Limerick), etc.
    “Tempted” – the Greek word is “tested.” Mark does not recount the three “temptations” as in Matthew and Luke; even there, there was nothing inherently sinful in bread from stones, or a display of power at the temple. The one clearly sinful would be to worship “the Satan” – the accuser, the prosecutor who insists that we are full of guilt.
    “The kingdom of God has come near.” A simplified caricature of John the Baptist might be that he proclaimed the kingdom of God, a kingdom where the good and evil are sorted out with power and driven apart. Jesus proclaimed a kingdom where sinners are welcomed and reconciled and healed. This kind of love can change us more deeply and lastingly: restorative justice rather than retributive judgment. This is what can inspire a new mind: meta-noia, which in the Hebrew tradition is seated in the heart. “Believe in the good news” – not a mental exercise, but a whole-hearted trust. Not “white-knuckle faith” – “I will believe! I must believe! – but the faith and trust of a child nestled on a loving shoulder. Good news.

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