Covenants run throughout the Bible; they are binding agreements between God and human beings that usually entail blessings. This covenant with Noah is significant because it is made between God and all life on earth and because it does not impose any expectations on that life; rather, it is a sheer, graceful promise from God not to destroy the world by flood.
The sign of the covenant with Noah is the rainbow, which is said to be God’s bow. It appears towards the end of a rainstorm. It is a reminder of God’s promise to be gracious in the post-flood world and a reminder that he controls the weather and the world. The symbol of the bow is usually military, but here, it is a symbol of reconciliation. However, the bow as a military symbol recurs in the Psalms and is implied in the recurring title (which we hear at Mass), ‘Lord of hosts’ or ‘Lord of armies’. In what ways does this image of God both inspire and challenge us today?
Psalm: Psalm 24(25):4-6, 7b-9
This psalm contains a litany of God’s attributes: saviour, merciful, loving, good, upright, faithful. Consider how each of these attributes can provide hope and comfort in life, and inform our prayers?
The psalm calls on God for help to remain faithful to God’s covenant; it recognises the need for grace in the Christian life. Are we consistent in our reliance on the Lord for help in our daily lives?
Second Reading: 1 Peter 3:18-22
Water, in Genesis 1, is seen as the raw material of untamed creation; from it the Lord fashioned all things by his word. Echoes of this are seen elsewhere in the Old Testament, especially through the image of Leviathan; in some ways, a personification of the untamed power of water, which God subdues. In the flood narrative, water begins by destroying life but, in doing so, purifies and leads to new creation. Noah and the animals selected to survive from the ‘old world’ were saved on the waters by the ark. All of this is taken in our second reading as a prologue, or foreshadowing for the Sacrament of Baptism, in which a person goes into the water, ‘dies’, and then comes back up as a new creation, saved through water and the Spirit. Consider ways in which this can deepen our understanding of Baptism, especially as we approach the Easter Vigil and renewal of Baptismal promises.
Gospel: Mark 1:12-15
The language at the beginning of this gospel is dramatic and follows immediately from the scene of Jesus’ baptism. The same Spirit that came down on Jesus on that occasion “drove Jesus out into the wilderness,” or we might say ‘hurled’ him out into the wilderness. It’s a decisive, intensive action. Does this surprise us? What inferences can we draw about how the Holy Spirit operates?
Mark’s gospel, in particular, is full of the unseen world which we confess in the Creed each Sunday: “all things visible and invisible”. They are active characters in Mark’s narrative. Here, Satan and the angels are present in the wilderness with Jesus. Consider how we might become more thankful to the Lord for the ministry and assistance of his angels, especially our guardian angel.
Jesus provided a summary of the gospel message at the end of this passage: “The kingdom of God is close at hand. Repent, and believe the Good News.” How would you respond if someone asked you what the ‘Good News’ is?
Welcome to Lent! Today’s readings have a baptismal theme, which might strike you as a little bit odd; what does baptism have to do with Lent?
In the Church, the privileged time for baptising adult converts is at the Easter vigil. Lent began, back in the early history of the Church, as the preparatory season that those seeking baptism would use before they entered into the family of God. It still has that function today. It has been extended to the whole Church to allow us to recommit ourselves to Christ through the renewal of our baptismal promises at the Easter Vigil. The lectionary gives us this attention on baptism today to give us a focus that will carry us through this Lenten season.
The liturgy of the word opens with the conclusion of the story of the Great Flood in Genesis. We join the story as the flood waters have abated and Noah has emerged from the ark. God then made a covenant with Noah and with all life, symbolised and sealed by the rainbow; a covenant in which God promised not to destroy all life through a flood again.
It’s a curious promise, isn’t it? There aren’t any reciprocal expectations made of Noah or his descendants; they aren’t told to obey a law or to remain faithful to God. Rather, this covenant is a promise which God alone makes not to destroy. He lays his bow down, and what is a bow but a weapon of war?
Peter picks up this image of the flood waters in his first letter, as we hear in this Mass. He says: “that water is a type of the baptism which saves you now”. In other words, Peter saw in the flood story a promise from God not to destroy life and a pattern by which God would use water to save life, just as he had saved Noah in the ark. We see that pattern in the Exodus from Egypt as the people were saved by passing safely through water, in the crossing of the Jordan into the Promised Land, and Jonah being swallowed up by the great fish in the water.
Finally, we have the great example of Jesus being baptised in the Jordan River. Jesus had no need of saving, but in being baptized, he went ahead of us to show the way we would need to follow to enter into his death and resurrection and receive the Holy Spirit.
“The baptism which saves you now”. Those words are worth pondering over this Lent. Let them be the source of meditation, of expectation; let them carry you along to the great Easter Vigil, where you can claim that truth again.
I’d also say don’t forget Paul’s messages about living the Christian life that was unfolded through the readings in 1 Corinthians in the build-up to Lent. Baptism saves you and enables you to live as a new creation in Christ, but living in a world of temptation, we all need time to recalibrate and refocus our lives on living out of that truth. Lent is that privileged time; let’s make use of it!
Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, Introductory Material, especially #172-210