The Gospel reading ‘encourages’ us to follow Jesus with 40 days of fasting, while the first two readings point to the Church’s custom of preparing candidates for baptism at Easter.
Often the first reading from the Old Testament offers background to the gospel; today, however, it is related to the Second Reading, giving us the flood story which will be considered a ‘type’ of baptism. (A type is an event in the Old Testament that was interpreted as foreshadowing what Christ brought to the world.) The story of the great Flood, Noah and his ark are familiar even in the secular world. Rather than a detailed account of an historical event, it can be seen as a lively story which has an important spiritual message.
There are a number of ancient traditions of serious flooding with widespread destruction. In the Middle East, archaeology has shown remains of serious floods in the Fertile Crescent. People there had stories similar to the Bible version, but showing selfish, destructive gods. The Hebrew storyteller stresses a moral outlook that fits their understanding God as a just judge, rewarding good, but punishing evil.
Since Christ, we are more aware that God wishes to save all those who sin, and offers continual love towards them that they might ‘turn back with all their hearts’. (Joel, heard on Ash Wednesday).
This Sunday’s selection omits all the earlier details of the warning, the building of the ark and its animal rescues, and the 40 days of rain. The 40 days offer one of the first events that make that number special in the Old Testament and picked up in the Gospels with Jesus’ time in the desert. We hear the end of the story, where the promises of blessing that were given first in the Garden of Eden to humankind are renewed.
The response suits the season as well, a time in which we seek to understand the ‘ways’ or ‘paths’ which God would have us follow. There is also a reminder that when we seek mercy and forgiveness we can trust in God’s love and loving-kindness.
1 Peter 3:18-22
St Peter writes to encourage new Christians, who may be going through problematic times, first of all, reminding them – and us in our difficult times – that Christ came to liberate all from sin, and to join him in the Resurrection of life, sharing the fullness of God’s love. As the waters of the Flood washed away any sinful structures on the earth, the waters of baptism wash away any sinfulness of the newly baptized. As Christ ‘descended’ through the grave and rose again, Christians have ‘gone down’ into the baptismal waters, and rise to the promise of new life. (Early Christians, as some today, baptised by total immersion in water, which makes the comparison much stronger.) Some scholars think this letter was preached at a baptismal ceremony.
Just before our selection in Mark was Jesus’ experience after his baptism when ‘immediately as he came up out of the water, he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit like a dove coming down to him. And a voice came out of the heavens: You are my Son, the beloved in whom I am well pleased.’ The word translated ‘beloved son’ can also mean ‘only son’. ‘Well-pleased’ is an echo from the prophet Isaiah identifying the perfect Servant of God, sometimes translated ‘on whom my favour rests’.
It is typical of Mark to set side by side a story of Jesus’ humanity long with indications of his unique relation as Son of God. Thus we are faced with the paradox of what the ‘Incarnation’ is, rather than any effort to describe how he could be both God and man. The voice from heaven – taken as coming from God the Father – was addressed to Jesus, but Mark lets us ‘overhear’ this, which will be a secret from other humans in the earlier parts of the gospel. But ‘immediately’ – a favourite word for Mark – the first human task for the Servant-Son will be a ‘testing’ or ‘temptation’. Jesus is ‘driven’ by the Spirit into the wilderness. Mark gives us the startling idea of how the Spirit, called in John’s Gospel the Comforter or Advocate, can also operate unexpectedly in ‘bringing us to the test’. The verb ‘testing’ was used in the Old Testament as a trial of character or will, and not just an attempt to allure one to sinfulness.
The desert was a feared place for its dangerous environment, but also seen in prophetic literature as an ideal for the time when the people of Israel were closest to God. During their 40 years in the desert of Sinai, they were often ‘tested’ – and often failed, so we are given a contrast with Jesus succeeding – although Mark doesn’t actually tell us that, as do Matthew and Luke. The experience of Elijah would be in Mark’s mind: the prophet who was threatened by death for his message, and tempted to despair before spent 40 days in the desert which led up to God revelation to him and renewal of his calling. (See 1 Kings 19:1-8)
Both Matthew (4:1-11) and Luke (4:1-13) in Years A and C give us a dramatic account of the temptations of Satan. Mark leaves it to our imagination – or more likely knows that it would be impossible for us to enter into the intimate experience of Jesus and to understand what such a stark confrontation with Evil would be. There are, however, some Biblical resonances in these short verses that offer ideas for reflecting on Jesus period in the desert.
Satan comes from a Hebrew word meaning ‘adversary’. The New Testament never presents Satan as an evil power equal with God, but still some kind of reality and more than a metaphor. (Evil spirits are shown as vanquished by Jesus, but still afflicting humanity in present time.) The word is used the book of Job, where ‘Satan’ takes the position that one who suffers will reject God. Thus there may be a hint of the test that Jesus, innocent but destined to suffer, should refuse this role. Note Mark 8:31-33 where Jesus calls Peter ‘Satan’ because Peter rejects the role of the suffering Messiah.
‘Wild beasts’ may simply be part of the desert life (Isaiah 34:11). If symbolic, there are a variety of Scripture allusions. For God overcoming the threat of wild animals see Psalm 91:13, Isaiah 35:9; Ezekiel 34:25, 28. Isaiah 11:6 and Hosea 2:18 shows the Messiah bringing peace between animals and humans. Angelic care also has a biblical tradition. An angel fed Elijah for his 40 days in the desert. Psalm 90/91:11-13 promises angelic aid.
It is after the end of his test that Jesus is ready take up his ministry of bringing the Good News.
Mark gives us a number of biblical and theological resonances but leaves interpretation up to us. This openness of Mark suggests to me that we remain open to whatever testing our 40 days of Lent might bring. Mostly in our lives, we frequently need the call to repent – turn again – and trust ever more deeply in the Good News of Jesus.