March 9, 2003 Homily by Fr. Robert Altier First Sunday of Lent
Reading I (Genesis 9:8-15) Reading II (1 Peter 3:18-22)
Gospel (St. Mark 1:12-15)
In the first reading today from the Book of Genesis, we hear about God making a covenant with Noah, and through Noah with all of the people who will populate the earth from that point on, as well as, actually, with all the animals. It is a covenant that never again will God destroy the entire earth with a flood. Now before that covenant could be made, God first made Noah and his sons go through all of the difficulties, all of the problems of building the ark, getting all the animals onto the ark, taking care of them for all of the days and months that they were afloat, and then having to start things all over again. The entire earth, at that point, had eight persons on it, and it had only two each of all of the unclean animals. So it was a very quiet and small place and there was the loneliness and the suffering that must have been involved in trying to get things restarted.
We see a pattern that is similar with Our Lord after His Baptism, which Saint Paul tells us in the second reading is prefigured by the flood that Noah and his sons had to go through and that in the ark they were saved through the waters of the flood, so now through Baptism, he reminds us, we are saved and it is the ark of the Church that we are incorporated into in Baptism. But in Baptism, of course, we know that we enter into the death and Resurrection of Christ: as we go down into the waters, we enter into His death, and we come back out and enter into His Resurrection. That, of course, spiritually done, each one of us still needs to go through that physically. But that holds no fear for us because we know the promises of Christ and that we already share in His Resurrection.
But more than that, for Our Lord, we have to be able to see that as soon as He came out of His Baptism the Holy Spirit drove Him out into the desert. It is a very strong word to be able to use regarding Our Lord: The Holy Spirit drove Him out into the desert. And there He was tempted for forty days, similar to the forty days and forty nights that the waters of the flood came down to cover the entire earth. So now Our Lord, for forty days and forty nights, is out in the desert. Just as Noah and his sons would be alone with the animals, now Jesus is out in the desert. And He is alone, we are told, with the wild beasts. One, in an utter flood where there is no land to be seen; and the other, now in the desert where there is no water to be seen. The angels, we are told, ministered to Our Lord.
But, in the midst of this, we have to be able to put it into perspective because in being baptized Jesus has prefigured the entrance into the covenant for each one of us because it is in our baptism that we enter the covenant that Our Lord has made for us. Going out into the desert, we see the suffering that Our Lord had to endure, which would also prefigure the suffering that He would have to endure during His Passion, after His death, and before His Resurrection. Saint Peter even reminds us that Jesus went down “into prison”, into the place of the dead, the netherworld or Sheol, the limbo of the just, if you want to think of it that way. He went down into this place to preach to the souls that had been there even since before the time of Noah, the souls who had been disobedient as well as all of those who had been obedient, because they would have to make an act of faith in Jesus Christ.
We must understand that Jesus did not go there in order to preach to those who had rejected God. Those who would be condemned had already rejected the Lord, but it was those who accepted God and who had died believing in the Lord that had to go to this place of the dead, of the netherworld, while they awaited the Resurrection. Adam and Eve were there. John the Baptist was there. Saint Joseph was there. All of the patriarchs were there. It was a place where everyone who had died had to go because Heaven was not yet opened. And so Our Lord went into that place and for the three days that His body was in the tomb, His soul went down into the netherworld to preach so that all of those who died believing in God would now be able to make an explicit act of faith in the Messiah Whom God had sent.
So we see what Our Lord has done for us. It is similar to what happened with Noah. We see Noah having to suffer for years as he built the ark and prepared for the flood, all of the ridicule and the difficulty that he would have endured. And then he had to suffer through the flood and then afterward. So too with Our Lord, we see that before He makes this covenant with us that there is a great deal of suffering: being driven out into the desert, the loneliness and the suffering, then through His Passion and finally in His death where He makes the covenant, and even after the covenant He is made to go down among the dead.
And so for us, who are incorporated into the covenant, we see the pattern that is there for us. Already incorporated into the covenant through Baptism, we know that we all have to go through this physically, as I have already mentioned. We know that this now is the time of suffering, as many of our prayers – for instance, the Salve Regina – would call this “the vale of tears”. It is a place of suffering. And we have to endure that suffering as we move toward that final moment of our lives where we will have to make that explicit act of faith, where everything we have been incorporated into in the covenant with Christ is going to come to a point of decision: Do we really believe it? Are we going to make that explicit act of faith in Jesus Christ as we enter into the threshold of death and walk through it?
Before we are able to do that, we need to prepare ourselves. God did not just bring a flood without preparing Noah. He did not just simply ask Our Lord to go to the Cross without first preparing Him with the desert. Nor does He ask any of us to simply face death without having been prepared. This season of Lent is a time to die to self. It is a preparation in a spiritual way for what will happen physically for all of us. It is to learn to say “yes” to God and to say “no” to ourselves. It is a way to be able to look at what is really important in our lives. And while it is not the ultimate decision that we are going to have to make – “yes” or “no” to God for all eternity – it is to prepare for that decision, to say, “I will put God before my senses, that is, before whatever it is that I have chosen to give up. Whatever penance I have chosen to take on during this Lenten season, I’m going to put God before the desires of my body. I’m going to be willing to die to myself so that I can live more for God. I will make that decision over and over for forty days and sometimes over and over everyday for forty days.” That is all preparation for that one day when we will have to make that decision in an absolute and ultimate way.
When we see how we flounder and waffle our way through Lent, we begin to realize that maybe it is not going to be so easy to make that last decision. After all, if we struggle even with the decision of whether we should eat this thing or watch that or listen to this, what are we going to do when we are faced with that final decision? So God in His mercy – or, as Saint Peter tells us, “in His patience” – gives us these opportunities to prepare ourselves, to strengthen ourselves, so that when we will have to make that final decision we will be prepared because we had made smaller decisions which are similar many times over and we had been able (eventually, we hope) to overcome these areas of weakness in our lives so that we will be strengthened, so that the virtue will be there to persevere in our penances and mortifications. And as we die to self and live for God, we will be able one day to make that final decision to enter into death so as to enter into the fullness of life.
So as we enter now more deeply into this desert time of Lent, we go out among the wild beasts (which are our own senses) that are crying out because they do not like being deprived of whatever it is we are telling them they cannot have during this Lenten season. Of course, in this society, one could say that we live among the wild beasts. Everywhere you look there is more filth coming at us, just like the wild beasts out in the desert that are going to be looking for food. We see that we are surrounded and that only by the grace of God are we going to be able to stay on the path and to trust. The Lord went out in the desert and the angels ministered to Him. We need to learn that we have to pray. It is not enough to be able to say, “I’m going to give this thing up,” or, “I’m going to take on this during Lent.” What we have to realize is that by ourselves we cannot do it (unless it is something so small that it is really not too much of a penance) but only through prayer to ask God to send His holy angels to help us, to protect us, to strengthen us just as He did Jesus in the desert. Just as the angels had to take care of Noah during the flood, so too, He has to send His angels to help us. We need to ask for that. We need to recognize our dependence, our weakness, and our need for God’s help.
As we go through this time of deprivation, whether that is being deprived of everything as it would be in the desert or like Noah when he was deprived of everything sitting on top of the water, there was nothing else that was there, so too for us. We need to put everything else aside and we need to focus on what is most important so that we can die to self and live for God, so that we can look at preparing ourselves. Enter into this death of Lent in order to rise in the Resurrection of Easter. All of that we have already done spiritually in our baptism, and it prepares us for what is to come where one day we will enter into the physical death so that we can share in the physical resurrection. That is what this time is about: to say “no” to ourselves, to say “yes” to God, to learn to deprive ourselves so that we can be filled with God’s grace – so that we can die to self and live for God.
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.