21Feb February 21, 2021 – First Sunday of Lent

February 21, 2021
First Sunday of Lent

(1) 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: from Psalm 26

R./: 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./)

(2) 1 Peter 3:18-22

Christ’s sacrifice which gives baptism its cleansing power

For Christ also 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 start of Jesus’ public ministry

And the Spirit immediately drove him 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.”

Children of the Desert

Some years ago on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land with a group of others to follow in the footsteps of Christ. We visited Bethlehem, Nazareth and Jerusalem; climbed the Mount of the Beatitudes and swam in the Sea of Galilee and even in the Dead Sea (not a pleasant experience!). We walked from Jerusalem to Jericho, looked into Jacob’s Well, stood on the place in Cana where Jesus changed the water into wine and even knelt at the place where he was crucified. Everywhere we went, we took our gospel with us and read the appropriate passage. It was a moving experience all the way. But the strongest impression I have retained is that of the desert where Christ spent forty days before starting his public life. During our pilgrimage, we spent a day and a night in the desert.

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.

Shun not the Struggle

A reflective 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 rationalise away these temptations, so that they become 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, unencumbered by any notional commandments 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 comes by acknowledging and accepting the vocation of struggling against temptation, to achieve the kind of behaviour and attitudes Jesus expects. We must submit our behaviour to his gospel. Christ and Adam show the two opposite reactions in face of temptation: Adam, archetype of sinful, evasive, self-seeking humanity, finds plausible reasons to yield to it, and rebels against God’s will. Jesus, archetype of the new God-seeking man, resists temptation even repeatedly. It can only be conquered by this blend of patience and loyalty, supported by trust that what God requires of us is what is best for us.

Opposing forces

Last Wednesday we began the season of Lent. We have five weeks of Lent now until Easter. Lent does not have quite the impact it used to have. It doesn’t seem to have as much of an impact on the lives of Christians as Ramadan has on the lives of Muslims. Yet, it is worth reminding ourselves that Lent is beginning. As a church we have set out on a journey which will end at the Easter Triduum, those three great days of Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday. The gospel reading for the first Sunday of Lent is always the gospel reading of the temptation of Jesus. Mark’s account of the temptation of Jesus is the shortest by far. We are given no dialogue between Jesus and Satan; the temptations are not spelled out in any way. Instead we have that enigmatic statement that Jesus ‘was with the wild beasts and the angels ministered to him’.

We could think of wild beasts and angels as two opposing forces. The wild beasts could be understood as servants of Satan, putting Jesus’ relationship with God to the test, enticing him to put himself rather than God at the centre of his life. The angels, in contrast, are servants of God, supporting Jesus in his time of struggle, giving him the strength to stand firm in the test, to withstand the onslaught. There is some parallel between where Jesus found himself in that wilderness at the very beginning of his ministry and our own lives. We too can find ourselves caught between wild beast and angels. We too can find our best convictions, our deepest values, being put to the test. The values of the gospel are not always at home in the world in which we live. The pressure to compromise with those values can be very strong. We can find ourselves in something of a moral and spiritual wilderness where there is very little appreciation for or understanding of the gospel message. Indeed, we can feel very alone as Jesus must have felt very alone in the wilderness.

At such times we have to remind ourselves that we are not alone, no more than Jesus was really alone in the wilderness. The angels are ministering to us. 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’. Jesus had come up against the kingdom of Satan during his forty days in the wilderness. However he emerged from that testing time knowing that the kingdom of God was stronger than the kingdom of Satan, proclaiming that the reign of God was present for all. In his letter to the Romans Saint Paul would put that conviction in a very succinct fashion, ‘where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more’. That is why Paul could say to the members of the church in Corinth, ‘God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it’. There may indeed be wild beast out there, forces that seek to undermine our faith in the Lord and the way of life that flows from that. However, today’s gospel reading assures us that there is an even more fundamental reality, and that is the reality of the Lord’s empowering presence. The angels will minister to us; the Lord will stand by us. He has given us and will continue to give us an abundance of resources. 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’.

One way of understanding Lent is to see it as the time when we try to give in to the many ways that God may be trying to touch our lives. We often think of Lent as a time when we try to give up things. There can be a real value in that. However, more fundamentally and more positively we might think of Lent as a time when we give in to the Lord who is always present to us and calling out to us. The church sets aside this season of Lent in the springtime of the year as a reminder that we may need to awaken spiritually. Although the Lord is present to us, we are not always present to him. Although the reign of God is at hand, we don’t always entrust ourselves to that good news. As we awaken spiritually, as we give in to the Lord, as we become more aware of the Lord who is around me, above me, below me, at my right hand and at my light hand, then we may experience a new desire to give up whatever is not serving our relationship with the Lord. We enter this season of Lent not just as individuals but as a community of faith. It is as a community that we are called to turn more fully towards the Lord and to walk together in his company towards Holy Week. ‘We will get to our destination if we join hands’ (Aung San Sui Kyi of Burma).

4 Responses

  1. Joe O'Leary

    The odd conjunction of the Rainbow in the Clouds in the first reading and the Temptation in the Desert in the Gospel might suggest a new take on Lent, making of it a cosmic season, a Lent for the Earth. Covid-19 has imposed a worldwide Lent for more than a year, and it urges us to repent and to build up the Kingdom, repent of how we have ruined the earth and and build up a wiser order in which God’s good creation is respected and healed. Striving for a Kingdom beyond this world or, worse, retiring into an inner kingdom of our own personal projects, while overlooking the task closest at hand, to care for the earth, is a radical distortion of gospel values.

    We lull ourselves on the basis of the Bible’s language: ‘God will never let the earth be destroyed in a nuclear accident, nor will it be depleted by our recklessness.’ We might quote Hopkins: ‘And for all this, nature is never spent; There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.’

    But the terrifying record of history leaves no room for facile complacency. The two World Wars, the Holocaust, the various ravages of disease, the multiplication of death spots due to tyrannies or foolish wars: Russia, China, South-East Asia, Latin America, Iraq, Libya–these make us feel that we live not in the Garden of Eden but in a demon-haunted desert.

    Since we no longer subscribe to the very solemn words on capital punishment in Genesis 9:6 what is to prevent us being sceptical about those of Genesis 9:9-11 as well? Or should we stop latching onto biblical utterances as magical talismans or prescriptions and chew instead on the wisdom they expressed, with the understanding of those ancient days?

    What does the text tell us today? That the creation, and human history, with all their ups and downs, are part of a divine adventure; that being is profoundly good, and reflects the infinite goodness of its source; that the struggle to defend creation is seconded by the divine creative power; that we are not atomistic individuals but live in a covenantal relationship with the earth and all its denizens, and in communion with a creative divinity that constantly draws us to fuller life, inviting us to respond at every moment to this empowering call.

    Humanity has not lived up to its privileged role as the steward of creation. How often its leaders and thinkers have betrayed it by petty concerns and negative outlooks that fill our newspapers and block out vision! Time to purge away all these unworthy preoccupations in the simplicity of the desert and recover the concerns that really matter, and that decide the fate of the earth. and the human community.

  2. Thara Benedicta

    Key Message:

    The best season to develop a close relationship with Jesus is Lenten season.


    Takeaway from first reading:

    Noah built the ark when rain was not heard of. He underwent mocking from people for years and years. Again he and his family were quarantined inside the ark till the waters receded. After all these hardships, he received a beautiful rainbow, a new life and also a promise that God will never destroy the world again with water (we too are receivers of this promise!!)

    Only eight people survived the waters and made it through the new life, that God had in plan for them. But now God is promising a new life for all of us through Jesus. Will we be similar to the survived family of Noah, or similar to the multitudes who died in the flood when our life is done?

    Takeaway from second reading:

    Jesus cleansed all of us from our sins and bought us by paying Himself as a price. Jesus came so that we will experience life fully/ completely (John 10:10).

    But why do we feel many times our life is incomplete? The closer we walk with God, we will experience being more complete.

    Takeaway from Gospel reading:

    After being filled with Holy Spirit, Jesus was led to the desert by the Holy Spirit. He was led to the wilderness to train Him for the upcoming ministry. Jesus was not led to a structured school where He was sitting comfortably and the teacher would teach Him the required lessons. He was taken into the wilderness, fasting for 40 days and nights and was allowed to be tempted by the devil – even though He was weak.

    Finally when He succeeded in the test by the devil, angels came and served Him.

    Similarly the wilderness in our lives also is a plan of God to prepare us for the tasks He has in store for us. When we pass through the wilderness, we need to consider that God knows better than what we do. God has a perfect plan for us. Hence, we need to go through the path of the wilderness for a while because it makes us grow into the person whom God wants us to be and to fit us into His great plans for us.

    Have we wondered how Jesus was spending time in the desert? His preparation time was totally spent with God. His time with God was the most critical need for Jesus before beginning His ministry.

    Thoughts to ponder – If Jesus, the son of Almighty God needed to fast and pray to accomplish His tasks, how much more do we need to?

    Tips for Lenten oaths:

    1. All the training He received in the 40 days in the wilderness was through prayer. Prayer enables us to understand the heart of God. It enables us to hear and listen to what He says. Spending quality personal time with God will be our first goal in the Lenten season.

    2. God is our Father who likes to show us His love. We can talk with Him the whole day, and He will be listening. If we do not have the practice of talking with the Holy Spirit all through the day, begin with this season. Initially, even if you forget to talk with Him, no problem. Whenever you remember, say whatever you feel to Him. How beautiful it is to talk with the Holy Spirit always. But sadly most of us do not realise the gift.

    3. Once we experience God’s presence, we will long for that experience again and again. And if we don’t spend the time with Him, He will call us.

    4. The first thing that Jesus did after coming out from the desert was to heal a person who was devil possessed. He had power over the devil after His fasting and prayer. In the Bible, when his Apostles asked Him why they were not able to chase a particular demon, Jesus says ‘You will need to fast and pray to chase these kind of demons’. Prayer gives authority over demons too.

    5. ‘Believing that God will do everything in the right timing for us’ is an oath that will glorify God during the Lenten season. When the right time is in, then all the required doors will be opened for us.

    6. Do not compare the troubles that you are going through with others. The wilderness differs according to our calling in life. So avoid the comparison thoughts.

    7. We think we deserve better than what we have. We do not want to be inconvenienced. We can offer our inconveniences with a happy heart and smiling face to God.

    8. Being an encourager to a person who is fully demotivated. This can be your spouse or troublesome child or any one who creates challenges for you in the office or at home. God would have simply placed you there so that you can show him/her His love.

    9. If your subordinate worker has not done his work properly and is fearing you and stressed out, then openly say to him “I am not so important for you to get stressed out fearing me; Let me know the challenge you are facing. We can both sort it out”.

    10. Do not give up on anyone. Nowadays, parents are inclined to give up on their children who are not on the right tracks. Will our Almighty Father not take care of your children? Persist in your prayers for them daily and bless them always.

    11. If we are patient during our waiting time, we will enjoy the fruit of our sufferings. But impatience also leads to complaining and even to depression. So let us cultivate a patient attitude.

    12. There is nothing too small or too big for God. Let us be aware that He always loves us and enjoys us, even though we are unfaithful. Chat with God more and more. The more we talk with God, the more we can lead a fruitful life!!!

    Can there be anyone who loves you more than Jesus?

  3. Neil Mitchell

    “The wild beasts could be understood as servants of Satan” – how sad that animals are vilified and demonised in this way. Contradicts the first reading, where God’s covenant includes all living creatures. Jesus was “with” the free-living animals, co-existing peacefully with them. He did not hunt them or kill them, and so they posed no threat to him. Echoes of Isaiah’s peaceable kingdom. The consequences of our estrangement from animals, and our commodification of them, are with us now – climate change, environmental devastation, global pandemics. We must learn to live in harmony with all God’s creatures, as Jesus did in the desert.

  4. Padraig McCarthy

    Genesis 9:8-15
    “I set my bow in the clouds and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth… the covenant between myself and you and every living creature.”
    The covenant is far wider than just the human race!
    Since the “bow” is the rainbow, for which both rain and sunshine are necessary, be sure the reader pronounces it as in rain-bow, not as “bough”!

    1 Peter 3:18-22
    A mysterious reading, with echoes of Jewish literature about Enoch, father of Methusaleh (Genesis 5:18-24), who lived 365 years. Genesis says of other patriarchs that they died, but with Enoch, God took him.
    “A small group of eight people”: Noah and his wife, and their three sons and their wives. In the context of Baptism, eight is symbolic of resurrection: Sunday is the first day of creation, and Sunday is also the eighth day symbolic of the new creation. Many older churches have baptismal fonts which are octagonal, reflecting this.
    In the Lectionary, there is a typographical error in the last line: “he has made the angels of the dominations and powers his subjects.” This should read “the angels and the dominations and the powers.”

    Mark 1:12-15
    In Mark 1:11, at his baptism Jesus is declared “You are my son, the beloved; my favour rests on you!” This is tested and vindicated in the desert. Jesus is with the wild beasts – no suggestion of a threat; but there may also be an allusion to the beasts in the arena in time of persecution in Rome, an assurance that the angels look after his people.
    Despite the arrest of John, Jesus continues the mission. The opening of Mark speaks of the Good News of Jesus the Christ. Mark tells us that John prepared the people for the one who was to come. Jesus now develops this further, announcing the Good News, mentioned twice in this short reading today: the reign of God is close at hand! This is our motivation and inspiration for re-directing our lives. “Believe the Good News” does not mean believe a statement; rather, “believe” means “be faithful to the Good News.” Faithfulness to Jesus means I too am a messenger, an “angel” of the Good News, ev-angelion, even in a world where many seem to have no desire or need for such Good News.

    Our three readings today are examples illustrating that scripture is not so much a book of answers to questions, but a story of people discovering the way of wisdom. “Lord, make me know your ways, teach me your paths. Make me walk in your truth, for you are God, my saviour.” (Psalm)
    This is our Lent, our Springtime.