Gen 9:8-15; Ps 25; 1Pet 3:18-22; Mk 1:12-15
Baptism is a key theme in today’s readings—water which brings both death and also new life. On the one hand, we need water to survive, but the power of water can be frightening. Spiritually speaking, we enter the death of the waters of baptism, so as to rise again to newness of life. Baptism not only washes away original sin, but it also fills us with God’s grace, making us His children and heirs to eternal life. For that matter, God “washed away” sin through the waters of the flood. And after the waters receded, God entered into a covenant with Noah, and by extension, with all humanity. God’s love knows no limits: even when we were dead because of sin, God chose to love and save us anyway. And the rainbow is God’s covenant sign that He would never destroy the whole world by a flood. So it’s very sad that the image of the rainbow has been hijacked in recent years. But just as the rainbow was a sign of the God’s covenant with Noah, so now we have a new sign of the covenant through Jesus, namely, baptism. Baptism is the sacrament of new life (that is, resurrection). As St. Peter said in our second reading, it’s not just an exterior cleansing, like removing dirt from the body. No, it’s an inner transformation. In the Old Testament, God frequently saved his people through water: Noah in the great flood, the Israelites at the Red Sea, then when he miraculously provided water for the people to drink in the desert, and again when the people crossed the Jordan River before entering the Promised Land. On these and other occasions, God transformed his people through water, and the same is true of us in baptism.
So how is baptism connected with our gospel today? Well, we’ll get to that shortly. Each year on the first Sunday of Lent, we read about Jesus being tempted by the devil. And although Mark’s account of this story is very brief, there are several things to highlight: 1) the Spirit actually led (the translation here is “drove”) Jesus into the desert to be tempted. It shows that God’s always in charge. We often forget that God and the devil are not on equal footing—not even close. God is the infinite creator, while the devil is a creature, so it’s pointless to compare their power and ability. 2) The location: the desert, which is a place of isolation. The devil often attacks when he sees people isolated and by themselves. In other words, Jesus was drawing the devil onto the battlefield, in order to defeat him. Monks would withdraw to the desert to pray and sacrifice, thereby engaging in battle against the devil. Today we can enter into the “desert” of Lent, through prayer, self-denial, and works of mercy to overcome the devil with God’s help. But in this case, we’re not isolating ourselves, because God is always with us. 3) Notice how Jesus confronts Satan, not with a mighty arm and great power, but with the frailty of human nature, guided by the Spirit. Jesus never ceases to be the Son of God, yet He won this battle as a man. That’s important, because by conquering Satan as a man, Jesus gives us an example to follow. And finally, Jesus was tempted immediately after being baptized….which leads to the 4th point: we conquer the devil through our baptism, by which we became adopted sons and daughters of God. In baptism we receive the grace to overcome sin and temptation because it’s not us working, it’s the grace of God. We’re justified—that is, made righteous—because Jesus died for our salvation. And God entered into a covenantal relationship with us when we were baptized in the name—that is, the family—of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Baptism empowers us to fight evil right now. But baptism isn’t the only sign of this new covenant. From the pierced side of Christ came forth water and Blood. The water of baptism and the Blood of the Eucharist—“the Blood of the new and eternal covenant which will be poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.” So our covenantal relationship with God is reaffirmed and strengthened each time we receive the Body and Blood of Jesus in the Eucharist.
Unfortunately, sin keeps us from completely fulfilling our side of the covenant with God. And sometimes we don’t realize the immense gravity of sin. Sin displeases God; it’s an infinite offense, which means we can’t make up for it on our own. And if that weren’t bad enough, sin is also terrible for us—we know from experience that it only leads to shame, sadness, separation from God, and ultimately death. “The wages of sin is death.” And although, sin is different from temptation, temptation is closely linked with sin and easily leads to it. Temptations will certainly come; that’s the result of the devil being kicked out of heaven—he continues to assault every human being. But if a thought simply enters our head and we reject it immediately, there’s no sin in that. For a temptation to become a sin, we have to consent willingly; and so the primary difference between a sin and a temptation lies in our will. Fortunately, the devil has no power to enter into the soul against our will. The Holy Spirit can, because He’s the Creator of the soul, and the Spirit of God pervades all creatures. But Satan can’t enter the heart without our permission. All he can do is stand without and tempt us, like he did with Adam and Eve. The danger comes when we give him space to enter—when we give in to those temptations. Think of temptations as “flaming darts” which enter through the senses, disorder our affections, and through them affect the will. But if the will doesn’t consent, then the presence of any amount of temptation may be distracting and real, but not necessarily sinful. One way to know whether it’s temptation or sin is this: does the presence of the temptation give us pleasure or pain? If we take pleasure in it, then we’ve probably been consenting; if it gives us pain, then it’s likely contrary to our will. And we should hate whatever is contrary to the holiness of God and the purity of our own soul. We strive against it, and pray God to rebuke the presence of the tempter. If we’re fighting like this, we can be assured that it’s a temptation, and not a sin (Cardinal Manning). Temptations, however, lead to sin and death, and so we have to learn to reject them quickly. Because the more we give in to temptation, the weaker we become, and the more the devil takes control of our lives.
There’s an urgency to Jesus’ message: “The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe in the gospel.” This is the point of the Lenten season just begun. We’re called to turn back to the Lord with all our heart and to put our trust and confidence completely in him. So how has Lent been going so far? The first fervor has likely died out—the ashes have been washed from our foreheads, and there’s no longer that visible sign that we attended church today. So now is the time to enter more deeply into our relationship with God through prayer, penance, and works of mercy.
We overcome temptation and sin not on our own, but only with the help of Christ. And we can offer the prayers and sacrifices of this Lenten season to show our repentance and resolve to do better. Lent is an ideal time to examine our consciences, and to return to the Lord in the sacrament of penance. And then of course, to receive Jesus in the Eucharist. Perhaps we could choose one other day (besides Sundays) to come to Mass and be refreshed with the Body and Blood of Christ. Or to read the gospel daily, or to meditate on the Passion of Jesus by attending Stations of the Cross on Fridays. Empowered with God’s Spirit through our baptism, and by prayer and perseverance, we can withstand and overcome the enemy. And then nourished by the grace and power of Christ, we’ll be strengthened to fight against the snares and temptations of the devil, because in this battle above all, surrender is not an option!