First Sunday of Lent

Today’s readings

We’ve gathered here on the first Sunday of Lent, and as we might expect, our readings give us the motivation for how to spend these days of Lent. I’m not always sure that we get the idea of Lent as straight as we should. If we think Lent is just about giving things that we like up for forty days so that we can remember how awful we are, then we’re certainly on the wrong track. Is Lent about repentance, about changing, about becoming better Christians? Well, yes, but even that’s not primarily it.

Lent means “springtime” which is a little hard to appreciate on days that are still in the twenties and thirties, and when there’s precious little spring-like growth in nature. Spring conjures up images of new growth, flowers and leaves budding, the return of singing birds, that kind of thing, and certainly we’re not seeing any of that yet. The newness of spring is yet to come for us. But I think the “springtime” that Lent calls to mind is a springtime in ourselves. It’s another chance to get it right, another chance to grow, another chance to remember what we are about.

And I think it’s the flood that gives us the biggest clue here. It’s mentioned in both the first and second readings, which is kind of unusual for our Liturgy, so that kind of highlights its importance. And the story is familiar enough for us, isn’t it? We know about the ark, we know about the animals two by two, we know about Noah and his family, about the destruction of the wicked and the saving of the good, we know about the forty days and forty nights of rain, and we know about what we see in today’s first reading: the rainbow.

So I’d like to focus on two things today: the water, and the rainbow. First, the water. I remember a time many years ago now when I was leaving my job in Naperville to go work at another company. I had to go one day for my pre-employment physical and drug test, and when I was leaving to go home, it started to rain pretty hard. Overnight, the rain just continued to pour down, and when I was leaving to go to my job in Naperville the next morning, it was nearly impossible to get there. Somehow I found a few dry back roads and made it to the office, but I was certainly one of the few. My boss was even shocked I tried to make it there, considering I had already given notice that I was leaving.

We watched out the window as some people tried to make it down flooded Jefferson Avenue and of course got stuck in the water, which I fear was higher than some of their cars. The electricity was out, and the damage was huge. It took a long time for the water to recede, and even longer for everything to get cleaned up. It was a nasty picture of how devastating the power of water can be. Many of us have experienced floods in our lives, maybe some of you remember the one I am speaking of. But we know that all of this is but a small sample of the flood that happened in today’s first reading.

So what was the point of this flood? Was it so that God could take delight in punishing the wicked? Was this a vignette of sinners in the hands of an angry God? Was this the only way God could rid the world of its evil and make a way for goodness? Hardly. I think the flood meant something more, here. St. Peter tells us the reason for the flood in today’s second reading: “This prefigured baptism, which saves you now.” Whenever we see that much water being spoken of in Scripture, we should always think baptism. Baptism is, essentially, a washing away of the bad and cleansing the person so that goodness can take root and grow. Baptism is the precursor to a springtime of new life in all of us.

The second symbol is the rainbow. When our family was on vacation last year, we had kind of a stormy day one day. In the evening, just as the sun was setting, there was a beautiful, double rainbow over Lake Michigan. We all watched it for a while, and took some pictures … it was a really peaceful end to a rainy day. In today’s first reading, the rainbow is established as a sign of God’s covenant with us. The author has God saying it will be a reminder for him “so that the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all mortal beings.” But I think the reminder is more for us.

When we see a rainbow, we should make ourselves aware once again of the great blessing and grace that is our relationship with God. Because it wasn’t Noah – or any other person – who initiated the covenant, it was God. God was the more powerful party and he didn’t have to forge a covenant at all. He could have wiped everyone out and been done with it, but that’s not who God is. God is all about our salvation, all about bringing us to eternal life, and it is God alone who can make that agreement, and he does it without even being asked.

This too is a sign of our own baptism. In baptism, we enter that covenant with God in which he extends the great offer of everlasting life. It’s a pledge of a really eternal springtime, with us as his chosen people, called and given grace to become completely his own, with all the many blessings that brings with it.

So as we enter this Lenten springtime, we have the opportunity to renew among us the dignity of our baptism. We do that in two ways. First, we see during this time of Lent increased activity among those who would join us at the Table of the Lord. This weekend, we have in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults the Rite of Sending of the catechumens to the cathedral for election. [Today] Tomorrow, Bishop Sartain will choose them on behalf of the Church for baptism, and they will no longer be known as catechumens, but instead as the Elect. Today [Yesterday] we have [had] the opportunity to approve these men for presentation to the bishop.

In the weeks ahead, they will participate in the scrutinies, during which their former life outside the church will be cast off, we will pray for the forgiveness of their sins, and we will perform a minor exorcism which allows them to receive the sacraments of initiation. Then, on the Easter Vigil of Holy Saturday night, among the retelling of our stories of salvation, we will welcome them in to our Church, baptizing them, Confirming them in the Holy Spirit, and sharing the Eucharist with them for the very first time.

But none of that, as you might suspect, is for the Elect alone. And so the second way we renew our baptism is by reflecting on our own experience once again. We too are Elect of God, having been called to the Sacraments, whenever we received them, not by our own power, but by the awesome grace of our God who always seeks us out, who runs to us wherever we are, who welcomes us back no matter how many times we have walked away, who catches us no matter how far we have fallen. We are not sinners in the hands of an angry God, we are the saved in the hands of a God of mercy and grace.

These forty days, then, are an opportunity for a new springtime in us. A new growth of grace in our lives, washed clean in the waters of baptism, renewed in the power of the Holy Spirit, and fed by the Bread of Life. Praise God for the gift of Lent.