Homily for the 1st Sunday of Lent

Today we hear from St Mark of our Lord’s temptation in the desert, from Genesis of God’s promise to Noah and family after the flood, and from St Peter of the symbolic connection between Noah’s flood and Christian baptism. It’s a lot and hard to hold together.

What’s happening is that several stands of Lent combine here. Lent is a refresher course for our faith – that’s why it’s good to read or watch some good Christian material. The readings give us highpoints or low-points of the story of salvation. They bring on Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David; Creation and fall, the Exodus, the Return from Exile. The reason is that it’s our story too. So, today, we hear about Noah and the Flood.  The second strand is that of the Sacraments, and in the first place Baptism. Through baptism we are brought into the story; we become actors. We pass through the flood, we cross the Red Sea, we go over the Jordan, we go down with Jesus into the River and rise up, we go into his death, burial and resurrection. And a third element is Jesus himself. And so today we hear of his 40-day temptation in the desert, and his victory over Satan. This is the paradigm of our 40 days of Lent.

The story of the Flood is old, very old, legendary, symbolic. I think though that it can speak to us very powerfully; it’s topical. For one thing, The Flood’s presented as a global event. These are what we live nowadays, we’re so connected. It’s what we lived with the pandemic. Then, it’s about water, rising water, and rising water, melting icecaps, is at the heart of the ecological crisis. Does God’s promise that humans and animals will not all be washed away still hold? It’s a story about creation imploding, the distinctions of the original creation, like that between sea and earth, being undone and all because of human misbehaviour. Isn’t the created order under threat today? Think of the chaos around sexuality, marriage, family. The flood is now. Think of pornography, think of drugs. Think of violence. If we abuse nature, nature will strike back. If we abuse our bodies, our bodies will protest. If we turn on each other, there will be a price to pay. And yet God makes a covenant with man and the animals, “There shall be no flood to destroy the earth again.” God’s mercy, said St John Paul, puts limits on human evil. It creates what the Bible elsewhere calls “a space for repentance”. God is not in the business of letting us down. The story of Noah is the story of a new beginning after disaster, of God’s irreversible commitment.

In the story of the Temptation of Jesus, the same truth comes out. Jesus, we remember, has just been baptised in the Jordan by John the Baptist. He has gone down into the water, a symbol of his death, but has come up and been declared the Son of God. Driven by the Holy Spirit he goes into the desert to face our ultimate, more-than-human enemy, the “murderer from the beginning”. He was tempted by Satan, says St Mark. Here we’re at the far edges of human experience: the Holy One in person faces ultimate evil in person. A naked combat, face to face, David and Goliath a pale prefiguring, impossible for us. We would be overwhelmed, washed away. The Lion-Lamb, our Lord, meets the Dragon, the great Serpent who in the book of the Apocalypse spews out a flood of evil from his mouth to wash away the woman, who is the Church personified in Mary. But she is kept safe in the desert of faith because in the desert Christ has already overcome Satan. God’s mercy sets a limit to human evil, to Satanic evil too. And Christ’s victory is ours. He fought on behalf of us all. He resisted all the Devil’s attempts to pervert his relationship with the Father, to betray his Sonship, and so we can stand firm in our baptismal promises, believing in Father, Son and Holy and being loyal to our promise to serve God in his holy Catholic Church all our life. It’s not a small battle we’re engaged in; we are not short of temptations; but Christ has won. “He was with the wild beasts”, says St Mark. With them; they were tamed. “And the angels looked after him”. The ruptures of creation are healed. Everything comes right round Christ. This is what begins when Christ rises from the dead, the devil overthrown by his Passion, and it’s into this new covenant, into this victory, we are baptised.

In baptism, God’s mercy puts a limit on human evil. When someone is baptised, symbolically by infusion or actually by immersion, he or she goes under the water. But this flood puts an end to their past sin and makes a beginning of new life: as with Noah and his family, as far more with Jesus in his Resurrection after evil had flooded over him in his Passion, as with the Church, Christ’s Bride, as she goes through the trials of history. “Baptism saves” says St Peter. Where did Alexei Navalny get such courage? From the Russian tradition of resistance to tyranny, yes. But he had been baptised too by his grandmother and returned to faith some years ago, now, he said, “feeling part of something large and universal”.

So much filthy water swilling and swirling through the world! But “the Lord sits enthroned above the flood; the Lord sits as king forever. The Lord will give strength to his people, the Lord will bless his people with peace” (Ps 29: 10-11). And so we go forward in faith.

St Mary’s Cathedral, Aberdeen, 18 February 2024


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