1ST SUNDAY OF LENT
This is the reason Christ died for sins once for all, a just man for the sake of the unjust, so that He could lead you to God. (Pet. 3:18)
For Christians, the Season of Lent is a special time of grace, a grace which enables us to fulfill the command of the Lord we just heard in the Gospel, reform your lives and believe in the Gospel. Jesus says that his coming is the time of fulfillment, and it is for this reason that we are called to repent, to undergo a deeper conversion by believing in His Gospel. This time of fulfillment has deep meaning for faith. Jesus is fulfilling the promise made in Eden, and reaffirmed in the great prophets of the Old Covenant that God would send a redeemer, a messiah who would deliver mankind from slavery, more precisely from the slavery and death of sin and Satan, the enemy of both God and man from the beginning.
At the same time, his coming is, then, a time of human fulfillment, the fulfillment of the human person, set free from sin and death in order to flourish as a child of God, which was God’s intention, also from the beginning. In order for man to achieve his God ordained destiny and fulfilment, however, we first would to be set free from our self-destructive behavior, which is what sin truly is. To become a true child of God, man would have to be truly free, which means he would have to be liberated from the power of Satan and sin. Only as a truly free being could man even begin to share in the divine nature and divine freedom, that is could man be truly divinized and become God’s true offspring. That was God’s plan from the beginning, but sin had disrupted man’s destiny, and without God’s grace he could only be a slave, a fallen creature with no hope of human fulfillment or true human happiness. Because human happiness could only be fulfilled if man also shared in God’s happiness.
Thus Jesus is the fulfillment, our fulfillmet, our redeemer, and his grace is means of our salvation. Thus the core preaching of Jesus is just this basic: we are to repent of our sins and we are to believe in His Gospel. But what does it mean concretely to repent and what does it mean concretely to believe in His Gospel? Do the Gospels not make it clear that repentance means putting sin to death in our wills, and that belief in the Gospel means freely submitting our souls, our very lives, to Jesus and cooperating fully in the work He has accomplished on our behalf.
In the second reading today, St. Peter specifies the essentials of our faith, what essentially we are to believe in: that the just man, Jesus Christ has died for the unjust, that is, for us, in order that we might be saved and be led to God by Jesus, who is the only-begotten Son of God. We must believe the Gospels, that by his death in the flesh he died for our sins, and that by His resurrection he became, in the flesh, the source of eternal life which is the source of the Resurrection. We receive that eternal life if we put our faith in the saving death of Jesus, in his sacrifice on our behalf. By faith in Jesus, we escape the death of the soul, just as Noah and his family escaped the death of the flesh by faith in God’s word.
In the days of Noah, only eight persons put their faith in God’s word and escaped the flood. The rest of men scoffed at Noah’s warning and ridiculed his building an ark so far from the sea, and they were drowned in the great flood that overwhelemed the earth. Surely this biblical event is for believers a parable to help us understand the fate of those who believe in the Gospel, as contrasted with the fate of those who deliberately refuse to enter the ark of the New Covenant. Those who repent and believe in the saving word and deeds of Jesus Christ will be saved by the wood of the Cross which like the wooden ark of Noah, carries the believer through the waters of Baptism to a new life in God.
On the other hand, those who deliberately refuse to repent and believe in the Gospel will be like those men of old who stayed outside the ark, and were lost. The ark of Noah, then, is seen by the Church to be a prefiguring image of the Cross of Jesus; the flood is a prefiguring of the Sacrament of Baptism; and, finally, the new life of Noah and his family a prefiguring of the new life that comes to us through Baptism, the new life of Divine Grace, the supernatural life of divine sonship in the Lord.
For Christians, the Old Testament is God’s revelation, but it is to be more fully understood as a foreshadowing of the New Covenant. Thus events like Noah’s ark remain significant for us simply because they are divinely intended to be images of the realities that will be brought about by the Lord in the New and Eternal Covenant. As St. Peter says, the baptismal bath, which corresponds to the flood exactly, contains not merely a physical effect, the preservation of man’s earthly life, nor simply a purification of the flesh or body as in the baptisms of the old rituals of Israel or surrounding nations.
The effect of Christian Baptism goes far beyond merely preserving physical life and far beyond the purification of any ritual bath of the old religions. Baptism causes us, says St. Peter, to have an irreproachable conscience, and it does so precisely by washing away our sins in the blood of Jesus. This Sacrament, in other words, causes a true interior transformation in our souls, cleansing them from all stain of sin so that we can stand before God as His true children, sharing His life, and pledging our fealty with an irreproachable conscience. That is the fulfillment Jesus speaks about when calls for repentance and faith.
Thus, Jesus begins his saving Mission by calling mankind to repentance for sin, and to belief in the Good News, that by His death and resurrection, we receive the gift of salvation, the forgiveness of all our sins, and the regeneration of our natures in Baptism which transforms us into God’s children and gives us a new and irreproachable conscience. This is the incomparable gift that Jesus offers to all. But to receive it, each of us must do two things for certain, repent for the sins we have committed and believe in the Gospel Jesus proclaims. This the heart of the Gospel message upon which all else depends. He has died for us, and by his death he has merited the forgiveness of our sins. He has risen for us and by his resurrection, He has become for us the true source of eternal life by which he restores us to goodness, cleanses our consciences and makes us irreproachable before God.
But, if it is necessary for those non baptized to repent and believe in the Gospel, it is clearly likewise absolutely necessary for those already baptized who have lost their irreproachable conscience received in Baptism by falling back into the slavery of sin. Because we have been baptized does not mean that we who have sinned after Baptism escape the necessity of responding anew to this call of Jesus to repent and believe. Who among us can say we have never betrayed our Baptismal gift from Jesus, our irreproachable conscience, by some form of sin? Even venial sin compromises the irreproachableness of our conscience, while mortal sin destroys the very life of Grace in our souls. And we who are baptized in fact stand before the Lord with even greater responsibility for having betrayed the free gift of His death, and we always remain in danger of betraying his gift in the future. So His call to reform our lives should strike our consciences even more since we have been privileged to receive his gifts in Baptism, and yet have not remained true to our promises.
How merciful God is to continue to address these words calling us to repentance every year in Lent, indeed every day. For we are not only sinners, but sinners who have betrayed our first troth! Yet how unlike us is the Father of Mercies, who continues to offer us the possibility of reform, though we may have betrayed him ever so often. Think of how unforgiving we can be. Suppose you had a son who had sacrificed his life for someone who was really a ne’er-do-well, and then, that man, having pledged himself to be a better man in the future to honor your son, wasted his new life again and again, in little ways and often in grave ways. How often would we hold out the offer of our forgiveness?
Yet does God ever stop offering these words of His mercy? We know the answer. So long as the Church proclaims this Gospel, the offer of God’s mercy will be made to those who hear it and take it to heart. On Ash Wednesday, the Church calls us to repentance. Each and every morning the Church begins her daily prayer with the words, “If today you hear his voice harden not your hearts.” The real question is do we choose to hear God’s appeal for repentance with an open heart, or are we like the neighbors of Noah, who heard the warning, but didn’t take it seriously and never entered the Ark. The choice is ours. God is always merciful; the question is are we always ready to repent and believe in His Gospel?