Friday, February 20, 2015

The flood, Christ in the wilderness, and the new creation: Readings for the First Sunday of Lent

This Sunday we celebrate the First Sunday of Lent. The lectionary readings focus on the flood--at least the first two. The reason for this might not seem immediately clear. 

The Gospel reading, taken from Mark, then goes on to describe Christ's forty days in the wilderness. 

How do all these selections relate to one another? Here I shall try to offer an explanation. 

To tip my hand a bit, I think the imagery that runs throughout the readings is the concept of "new creation". Indeed, in the Christian tradition, Lent is preparation for the resurrection of Christ, the event that is understood as ushering in the new creation. The fathers identified Sunday thus as "eighth day", or, the first day of the new creation week. 

With that in mind, let us turn to the readings. . . 

FIRST READING: Genesis 9:8-15
God said to Noah and to his sons with him:
“See, I am now establishing my covenant with you
and your descendants after you
and with every living creature that was with you:
all the birds, and the various tame and wild animals
that were with you and came out of the ark.
I will establish my covenant with you,
that never again shall all bodily creatures be destroyed
by the waters of a flood;
there shall not be another flood to devastate the earth.”
God added:
“This is the sign that I am giving for all ages to come,
of the covenant between me and you
and every living creature with you:
I set my bow in the clouds to serve as a sign
of the covenant between me and the earth.
When I bring clouds over the earth,
and the bow appears in the clouds,
I will recall the covenant I have made
between me and you and all living beings,
so that the waters shall never again become a flood
to destroy all mortal beings.”
In Christian tradition, the season of Lent is associated with death and new life--specifically, to borrow Pauline language, it is a time to "put to death" attachments to sin (cf. Col. 3:5) in anticipation of the celebration of Christ's resurrection, which opens up for us "new life".

In the liturgy, the flood of Noah is frequently used as an apt image of new creation--through the waters of death, new life emerges.

In short, in the flood, Noah is portrayed as a new Adam. Through him, we have God bringing forth a kind of new creation. Many parallels could be mentioned:

  • Out of the waters, a new creation emerges (Genesis 1:2; 7:11)
  • The flood begins after “seven” days, evoking the seven days of creation (Gen. 2:2; 7:10)
  • As the Lord rested on the seventh day, the ark comes to a rest in the “seventh” month (Gen. 2:2-3; 8:4)
  • Like Adam, Noah is told to be “fruitful and multiply” (Gen. 2:28; 9:1)
  • Also, like Adam, Noah is given dominion over the creatures of the earth (Gen. 2:28; 9:2)

Moreover, the term that is usually used in Hebrew for establishing a covenant is kārat, which means, literally, to "cut". (It is likely the language refers to the sacrificial act that typically accompanied covenant-making.) However, the term used in Genesis 9 is not kārat but hēqîm, which has the connotation of "renew". 

What covenant is God renewing with Noah? The most likely answer is that Genesis here implies that God had already established a covenant with creation. God created the world in covenant relationship with himself. 

That idea is not explicitly stated in Genesis 1, but the imagery of God creating the world in seven days strongly suggests it. Covenant-making was closely associated with oath-swearing and one of the Hebrew words used for swearing an oath (šĕbûʿâ), which has at its root the number seven. In his Anchor Yale Bible Reference Library title, Kinship by Covenant, which offers the most comprehensive analysis of covenant-making in Scripture available in print, Scott Hahn explains the verbal form of the root literally carries the meaning of "to seven oneself".[1]

That other biblical and non-biblical writers spoke of a creation covenant further reinforces the likelihood that such imagery is present in Genesis. Jeremiah speaks of God's covenant with the day and the night--imagery with strong parallels with Genesis 1 (cf. Jer 33:20). Some scholars also believe Hosea 6:2 contains a reference to the fall when it states, "But at Adam they transgressed the covenant. . .” Finally, 1 Enoch, a non-biblical book that was apparently widely read by ancient Jews and Christians, describes God establishing creation through his "oath" (cf. (1 Enoch 69:15–27), language that also coheres well with the idea that God established the cosmos through covenant-making.

Noah, then, seems to be described as a new Adam figure. God appears to be recreating the world through him.

The flood was necessary, we read in Genesis, because sin. The deluge serves as God's judgment on a faithless world. It represents a kind of "re-set". Yet the flood is sadly not the end of sin in the world. Far from it!

Indeed, the story of what happened after the flood once again parallels the creation narrative. Whereas Adam had been in a garden, Noah finds himself in a vineyard. As Adam consumed the forbidden fruit, Noah consumes too much of the fruit of the vine. As Adam found himself naked and ashamed, Noah's son looks upon his father's nakedness. As curses followed the sin of Adam and Eve, curses are pronounced by Noah.

From the perspective of the New Testament, sin is shown to be a power at work in Adam's descendants. Human effort will not be enough to overcome it. Victory over the power of sin and a true new creation will only be fully realized in Christ. More on that when we get to the Gospel reading.

RESPONSORIAL PSALM: 25:4-5, 6-7, 8-9
R. (cf. 10) Your ways, O Lord, are love and truth to those who keep your covenant.Your ways, O LORD, make known to me;teach me your paths,Guide me in your truth and teach me,for you are God my savior.R. Your ways, O Lord, are love and truth to those who keep your covenant.Remember that your compassion, O LORD,and your love are from of old.In your kindness remember me,because of your goodness, O LORD.R. Your ways, O Lord, are love and truth to those who keep your covenant.Good and upright is the LORD,thus he shows sinners the way.He guides the humble to justice,and he teaches the humble his way.R. Your ways, O Lord, are love and truth to those who keep your covenant.
The responsorial psalm obviously picks up on theme of God's covenant, a motif we saw emphasized in the first reading. Above we saw how God remained faithful to his covenant with creation, renewing it through Noah. In sum, the psalm celebrates the fact that God is faithful even when his people are not! God is ever eager to receive those who are sinners back to him.

SECOND READING: 1 Peter 3:18-22
Beloved:Christ suffered for sins once,
the righteous for the sake of the unrighteous,
that he might lead you to God.Put to death in the flesh,
he was brought to life in the Spirit.In it he also went to preach to the spirits in prison,
who had once been disobedient
while God patiently waited in the days of Noah
during the building of the ark,
in which a few persons, eight in all,were saved through water.This prefigured baptism, which saves you now.It is not a removal of dirt from the body
but an appeal to God for a clear conscience,
through the resurrection of Jesus Christ,who has gone into heavenand is at the right hand of God,
with angels, authorities, and powers subject to him.
1 Peter identifies the flood as a type of Baptism. It is not entirely clear how exactly Peter views the flood as a prefigurement of the baptismal waters other than that just as God saved the righteous through the waters of deluge, the waters of baptism save the righteous in the new covenant.

The analogy between the flood and baptism is further developed in the prayer for the blessing of the water at the Easter Vigil:
The waters of the great flood
you made a sign of the waters of Baptism,
that make an end of sin and a new beginning of goodness. (Roman Missal)
Just as the waters of judgment brought death at the time of Noah, the waters of baptism also bring about a death--death to sin. Moreover, just as a new creation emerged out of the waters, so too the Christian emerges as a new creation from the baptismal font.

The lectionary readings lead Christians to to reflect upon this awesome mystery. By baptism, Christians have died to sin. Note that for 1 Peter, baptism isn't simply a "symbolic" act that has no efficacious power; we read, . . . baptism, which now saves you. 

The liturgy is inviting Christians to reflect on this and to live this out in their own lives during this penitential season.

GOSPEL: Mark 1:12-15
The Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert,
and he remained in the desert for forty days,
tempted by Satan.
He was among wild beasts,
and the angels ministered to him.
After John had been arrested,
Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the gospel of God:
“This is the time of fulfillment.
The kingdom of God is at hand.
Repent, and believe in the gospel.”
The model for the spiritual self-discipline the church practices during the forty days of Lent is, of course, Christ, who went out into the wilderness for that very same period of time.

The language of the Markan account seems to depict Christ in terms of Adamic imagery. That Jesus is among the wild beasts may recall the sin of Adam and Eve in the garden. Indeed, the serpent is "more subtle than any other wild creature" (cf. Gen. 3:1). Interestingly, just as Mark tells us that angels ministered to Jesus, ancient Jewish tradition held that Adam and Eve were ministered to by angels in the garden (Adam and Eve 4.1-2; b. Sanh. 59b).

Christ brings about a new creation. He overcomes the power of sin, defeating Satan once and for all.

Within the lectionary, Christ's words, Repent, and believe the gospel, are meant to ring out afresh as we begin the Lenten season. The scripture passages are meant to lead us then to reflect on ways we can better live as though the kingdom of God is at hand--for in the coming of Christ in the liturgy, it truly is.

[1] Scott W. Hahn, Kinship by Covenant: A Canonical Approach to the Fulfillment of God's Saving Promises (AYBRL; New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 51.

1 comment:

Anon said...

"1 Peter identifies the flood as a type of Baptism. It is not entirely clear how exactly Peter views the flood as a prefigurement of the baptismal waters other than that just as God saved the righteous through the waters of deluge, the waters of baptism save the righteous in the new covenant."

I would say it's because Jesus in the wilderness is a new Noah, just as Jesus in the garden is a new Adam. He comes to flood the wilderness with baptismal water.