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The First Sunday of Lent: Deluges and Deserts, Sin and Salvation

On the Readings for Sunday, February 21, 2021, the First Sunday of Lent

Detail from "Temptation of Christ" (1872) by Vasily Surikov []

Gn 9:8-15
Ps 25:4-5, 6-7, 8-9
1 Pt 3:18-22
Mk 1:12-15

Lent is a season of challenges and extremes, a dramatic confluence of opposites. As evidence, I offer Exhibit A: today’s readings, which contain stories about deluges and deserts, sin and salvation, and water that destroys—and saves. All of it is heady stuff, certainly, but it is aimed at the heart, meant to help us embrace more tightly and cherish more deeply the eternal purpose of our lives.

What does the story of the flood and Noah’s ark have to do with Jesus being tempted in the desert? The first connection is sin. The flood was necessary because “In the eyes of God the earth was corrupt and full of lawlessness” (Gen 6:11). Seeing the corruption and depravity of man, God told Noah, “I have decided to put an end to all mortals on earth; the earth is full of lawlessness because of them. So I will destroy them and all life on earth” (Gen 6:13). Although Jesus was sinless, he saw and felt the effects of sin. After being baptized, he went into the desert to directly confront the temptations of Satan, the Evil One responsible for bringing sin and death into the world.

This brings us to the second connection, which is a time of trial. The destruction of wickedness on earth, God told Noah, would require forty days and nights of rain (Gen 7:4, 12). That number, in both the Old and New Testaments, is closely connected with times of trial, hardship, and punishment, including the forty years the Israelites spent in the wilderness after the Exodus, made necessary by their sin and rebellion (Num 14:26-35).

The forty days spent by Jesus in the desert was a reenactment of those forty years. But while the people had failed to obey the word of God, Jesus obeyed completely. Whereas they had continually complained, Jesus complied with humility. And while Moses was not allowed to enter the Promised Land, Jesus ushered in the Kingdom of God.

The third connection is covenant. Following the flood, as we hear in today’s Old Testament reading, God told Noah that he was establishing a covenant “between me and you” and “between me and the earth.” This was one of several covenants, each of them an invitation from the loving Creator for man to enter into “intimate communion” with him (Catechism of the Catholic Church, pars 54-73). The new and everlasting covenant, the perfect culmination of this plan of salvation, was established by the life, death, and resurrection of the God-man.

Finally, there is the connection of water and baptism. In the time of Noah, sinful men were destroyed by water even while the righteous man (and his family) was saved by that same water. In baptism, as today’s epistle explains, the flesh—that is, the old man—is put to death, while a new man emerges from the sacramental waters. “For Christ, being the first-born of every creature,” wrote Justin Martyr in his Dialogue with Trypho, “became again the chief of another race regenerated by Himself through water, and faith, and wood, containing the mystery of the cross; even as Noah was saved by wood when he rode over the waters with his household.”

Jesus, after being baptized—and thus preparing the waters of the world for our baptisms—faced the Tempter and then announced the Kingdom of God. In doing so, he proclaimed, in word and deed, that sin and wickedness would be dealt a fatal blow, which was soon delivered through his own suffering, death, and triumphant emergence from the tomb.

During his time in the desert, Jesus prayed and fasted. Pope Benedict XVI, in his [2009] message for Lent, reminded us that the true fast is “directed to eating the ‘true food’, which is to do the Father’s will (cf. Jn 4:34).” Noah was saved because he chose holiness over earthly pleasures. Jesus brought salvation by choosing the Father’s will over the devil’s lies. The challenge of Lent is to choose holiness and hunger for the true food.

(This “Opening the Word” column originally appeared in the March 1, 2009, edition of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)

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About Carl E. Olson 1196 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.

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