The Lectionary texts for the Sundays of Lent follow a somewhat different pattern from that of Ordinary Time. The series of Old Testament readings develops the history of our salvation with reference to the theme of God’s covenant with his people Israel. The various Epistle texts help us reflect on the effects or results of Jesus’ death and resurrection for us. The Gospel selections focus on what Jesus did and said in his public ministry.
The purpose of Lent is spiritual preparation for the celebration of Jesus’ death and resurrection on Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Taken together the three cycles of Scripture readings for each Sunday in Lent can help us to appreciate better the history of our salvation, the pivotal significance of Jesus in that history and the implications of the paschal mystery as we live in faith and love and move into the future with hope. They point to the baptism of catechumens at Easter.
A covenant is an agreement. It may be between equals, or between a lord and someone of lesser importance. The first covenant in the Bible is between God as the suzerain (lord) and Noah as the client. According to the “primeval history” (Genesis 1–11), human sinfulness from Adam and Eve to the time of Noah had reached the point that God had determined to destroy the earth with a gigantic flood. Only the righteous Noah and his family were to be spared. After the flood there was to be a new beginning marked by a new covenant.
The covenant with Noah is very simple. It consists mainly of God’s promise to care for the earth and not to destroy it again by a flood. This covenant is with all humankind, since God’s special relationship with Israel as a people begins only with the call of Abraham in Genesis 12. In this covenant Noah and his boat become symbols of rescue or salvation from the flood.
The sign of the covenant with Noah is the rainbow. A full rainbow has many colors: violet, indigo, blue, green, yellow, orange and red. The clouds, raindrops and sun all must be in the right positions to produce a rainbow. The rainbow often gives the impression of linking heaven and earth. That is why the rainbow is a sign of the first covenant joining heaven and earth. The sign of the rainbow may help us to understand better the pivotal place of Jesus in salvation history. Like the rainbow, he is the link between God and humankind, between heaven and earth.
In comparison with the lengthy scriptural debates in the Matthean and Lukan versions of the temptation of Jesus, the Markan account is remarkably short (1:12-13). In Mark’s narrative it serves as the bridge between the baptism, where Jesus is identified as God’s son, and the summary of his preaching as the prophet and embodiment of God’s kingdom. The desert was the place where ancient Israel in Moses’ time was tested for 40 years. The 40 days of Jesus’ fasting may also recall the 40-day fasts undertaken by Moses (Deut 9:18) and Elijah (1 Kgs 19:8). The testing or temptation in which Jesus overcomes the power of evil reveals at the start of his public career what kind of messiah Jesus will be. That Jesus was not harmed by the wild beasts and that angels ministered to him shows his ability to connect earth and heaven much like the sign of the rainbow in Genesis 9.
The reading from 1 Peter (and all the Epistle readings for Lent) views the history of our salvation through the lens of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Using already traditional formulas of faith, Peter affirms that in the paschal mystery Jesus has made possible for all humankind right relationship with God (justification) and life in the Holy Spirit (sanctification). The images of Noah and his ark remind us that in baptism we have experienced the forgiveness of sins and justification, as well as the gift of the Spirit. Again, Jesus is the link between God and us, between heaven and earth.
Without mentioning the sign of the rainbow, Peter’s description of the risen Christ as now “at the right hand of God” —the same one who was described earlier as “put to death in the flesh”—evokes the dynamics of God’s covenant with Noah as well as Jesus’ incarnation as God’s son and the saving significance of his death and resurrection. Through the sign of the rainbow God promised Noah that he would love and care for Noah’s descendants and for the earth that they inhabit. We Christians believe that this promise has been fulfilled superabundantly in the person of Jesus. The basis for our Lenten observance is captured in today’s reading from 1 Peter: “Christ suffered for sins once, the righteous for the sake of the unrighteous, that he might lead you to God.”