First Sunday of Lent
In the Christian tradition, the two most dramatic events in human history are the sin of Adam and the Incarnation. Original sin radically disrupted the relationship between humanity and the Creator, while the ministry and death of Jesus permanently repaired that rupture. The Old Testament readings for the Sundays in Lent call to our attention a series of initiatives on God’s part that mark stages in this process of reconciliation.
The rather peculiar story of Noah marks the first of several covenants, followed by the covenant with Abraham, the Mosaic covenant on Mount Sinai, and Jeremiah’s prediction of a final new covenant with the people of Israel. These covenants are gratuitous promises on God’s part, drawing his chosen people closer, in preparation for the final step.
What are we to make of the story of Noah? There are a number of features that suggest that the story was intended to be symbolic, not factual. For example, Noah is precisely 600 years old when the flood begins; water covers the entire surface of the earth destroying all human and animal life and then recedes (going where, exactly?) over the course of a year; Noah saves every species of animal life by bringing a pair (or is it seven pairs?) aboard a relatively small ship. But if the story is symbolic, how are we to understand it? Perhaps it is meant to show that regardless of human sinfulness, what God has created remains good. The first sign of God’s fidelity after Adam’s original sin is his determination to sustain what he has made, and the second sign is his promise to continue to preserve his creation.
The Gospel reading for this Sunday, perhaps the shortest for any Sunday in the liturgical calendar, is the beginning of the end of the story. It is the briefest account we have of the substance of Jesus’s message at the start of his ministry. He tells those who listen that the kingdom of God is approaching and urges them to change their hearts and have confidence in this good news.
What if we were really to take this seriously, as Christians ought to be prepared to do? We would acknowledge that the Incarnation is the most significant event in human history and that the kingdom of God represents something dramatically new that changes the context of every human life. There is no going back, there is no returning to whatever we might call the era before the kingdom. Instead, we are told to change our hearts and minds, to change what we value and what we think in preparation for a new reality. Old ways of life will not do. Conversion—what one theologian called taking the side of the truth against oneself—is often difficult and frightening. Perhaps this is why Jesus’s last word is that we should have confidence, that we should trust that his news is true and truly good, enough confidence to change our lives forever.
Dr. Robert G Kennedy
Professor, Department of Catholic Studies