February 21; 1st Sunday of Lent; Year B

1st lent 20 21Season of death and rebirth

Climate change proponents are painting a scenario that is not too different from the Deluge that destroyed (or almost destroyed) the world and all its inhabitants during the time of Noah. Global warming, according to the “science,” will result in accelerated melting of polar caps and which in turn would lead to coastal towns (where half the world’s population lives) and islands in the middle of the oceans being swallowed up by sea water in another decade. Remember the apocalyptic movie 2012. Now, I know that what I am going to say next may result in me being labelled as a looney climate change denier that ought to be locked up for the good of humanity, but I’m going to say it anyway. Didn’t God just promise Noah in the first reading that “the waters shall never again be a flood to destroy all things of flesh”? Now, if you refuse to take God at His word, would that make you a bible denier?
Well, on this First Sunday of Lent, I do not intend to lead you down a rabbit hole of deciding whether to believe in scientific truths or biblical truths. We have far greater concerns. We would need to reconcile the first and second reading which speaks of the flood waters encountered by Noah with the bone-dry wilderness described in the gospel, the scene of our Lord’s temptation. What more, Saint Mark’s version of the temptation story lacks the depth and content of the other two versions found in the gospels of Saint Matthew and Saint Luke. What the other two accounts spell out in 11-13 verses is succinctly summarised in two verses in today’s gospel. “The Spirit drove Jesus out into the wilderness and he remained there for forty days, and was tempted by Satan. He was with the wild beasts, and the angels looked after him.”

There doesn’t seem to be any correlation between these two themes - flood and desert - except for the period of the ordeal which both Noah and our Lord had to endure - forty days (and forty nights). Who could forget that Israel had to endure forty years in the wilderness after her escape from Egypt and before she was allowed to enter the Promised Land. But the Old Testament is punctuated with numerous stories which mention 40 days including the following:

1. It rained 40 days and nights before the water covered the earth during Noah’s time;

2. Moses was on the mountain with God for 40 days and nights;

3. The scouts of Israel explored the Promised Land for 40 days;

4. Goliath challenged the Israelites to a fight each day for 40 days;

5. The meal delivered by an angel sustained Elijah for 40 days in the desert;

6. Ezekiel bears the punishment of Israel for 40 days;

7. God postpones the destruction of Nineveh by 40 days, giving the city time to repent.

Each of the above certainly marks a new era in salvation history. It is the bridge between an old way of life which is passing, and a new one which is dawning. So, forty is a number of punishment and repentance, testing and resting, and, above all else, absolute dependence on God. Whenever God wants to do something significant, He does it in 40 days (or years). Forty is associated with almost each new development in the history of God’s mighty acts, especially of salvation.

The biblical symbolism of 40 has an intriguing analogy in the natural world. Forty weeks is the traditional number of weeks for a pregnancy. I know that if you do the math - 9 times 30 divided by 7 is 38.57142 weeks. But putting aside medical science and precision of mathematical calculations, pregnancy is indeed an apt model for the biblical periods above. It begins with the intensity of the moment of conception, is followed by a time marked by both pain and joyful anticipation, and then, only after this period of postponement, is there the birth of someone new. It is most fitting then that the new era of salvation began with a pregnancy: Mary’s The Church also uses the image of pregnancy and the birth of a baby to describe the first sacrament, the doorway to salvation - baptism. Interestingly and incidentally, the 40-day Genesis flood also prefigures baptism.

And then, we have the 40 days of Lent. The connexions among faithful endurance, spiritual renewal, and baptism in particular are driven home for us each Lent, at the end of which we are called to renew our baptismal vows. In this way, we participate in Christ’s own desert experience, which ended with His own baptism.

This season of Lent beckons us to embark on our own 40-day exodus. It’s not going to get easier as temptations often appear sweeter when it is denied. But as much as the tempter seems to have his way with us, as he did with our Lord, know that the One who truly has power over us and can guide us is the Holy Spirit. For as the Holy Spirit led our Lord into the wilderness for forty days, it is the same spirit who will lead us into the Spirit-filled wilderness of Lent. As you can see, scripture equips us with many models for this spiritual sojourn. Whether it’s to weather our own floods, patiently wait for God’s answer to our prayers, survive the desert of our human experience, slay our own Goliaths, undergo repentance and transformation, Lent is the time for spiritual action and passion—knowing ultimately that it is the Holy Spirit who leads us and our Lord who journeys with us, who acts within us, and suffers for us and with us. Don’t just take my word for it. Trust the “science,” the theological science of the Bible.