Commentary on the Readings
1st Sunday of lent – Year B – February 18, 2018
THE ARCH: FROM A TOOL OF WAR TO A SYMBOL OF PEACE
In the mythological stories of ancient peoples, deity wielding the bow, ready to shoot arrows at their enemies, often appear. Israel, too, when struck by misfortune, believed that the Lord, outraged because of the sins of his people, had turned his bow against her (Lam 2:4).
An archaic image, legacy of a pagan mentality destined to dissolve with the gradual revelation of the true face of God, who not only holds no weapon to punish, but has vowed to reduce to smithereens any arch of war (Zech 9:10) .
His only his bow is deployed in heaven. It is not a threat, but it combines, in a single, affectionate hug, the sky with the earth, and on the earth, all peoples.
"Look at the rainbow—urged Sirach—and praise the one who made it" (Sir 43:11).
It is the serene image of God's response to people's sin: not the frowning face, but a light, sweet as a caress; not a menacing voice, but a welcoming smile, aimed at those who, forsaking the Lord, have done themselves too bad.
The ambivalence of the arch expresses a paradox: the wrath of God is nothing but his smile and his severity coincides with tenderness. His justice is mercy, and from his arch, he does not shoot arrows other than those of love.
To internalize the message, we repeat:
"From my sinful state I look up and I see the rainbow in the sky."
The peoples of Mesopotamia owed their prosperity to the two great rivers, the Tigris and the Euphrates, and yet they feared the waters, sources of life, that often turned into agents of destruction and death. They controlled the fire, forged metals, domesticated animals, but they felt powerless in the face of floods and tsunamis. The water, like the arch, is ambivalent: it can be a sign of life and a symbol of death, is a gift from heaven and is considered a tool of punishment in the hands of divine justice.
In the mythic traditions of the ancient Middle East everywhere they remember the great waters that, in ancient times submerged the earth. Geophysicists ensure that seven or eight thousand years ago, the melting glaciers caused the sea waters to rise a hundred yards, causing impressive disasters everywhere.
From the experience of these catastrophes would be born many of the flood myths that have come down to us. The earliest version, written in Sumerian, dates back to the third millennium B.C. They are stories that attempt to explain the meaning of these disasters. They are sapiential reflections that many people have then taken up and reworked, adapting them to their religious concepts. Israel, too, has known these myths and has welcomed one in the Bible, but after having purified it from all the incompatible elements with their faith. They used it to show how her God hates evil (Gen 6:5-9.28).
The story begins with the dramatic description of evil: "The Lord saw how great was the wickedness of man and that evil was always the only thuoght of his heart. The Lord regretted having created man on the earth and his heart grieved. He said, “I will destroy man whom I created and blot him out from the face of the earth, as well as the beasts, creeping creatures and birds, for I am sorry I made them"(Gen 6:5-7). These are phrases that leave us bewildered. They are shocking images, among the most daring of the entire Bible. They have one goal: to indicate, in the most provocative way, how much God is involved in the history of the world and of man.
In the Mesopotamian myths, the cause of the flood was the wrath of the supreme god, annoyed, in his quiet, by too much noise from the men on earth. In the biblical story instead, the Lord's intervention is determined by the accumulation of violence, "the earth is filled with violence" (Gen 6:13). It was not the evil done to God, but the atrocities committed by people against other people to provoke the wrath of the Lord. It was not the blasphemies against the Lord, but the reciprocal atrocities made intolerable, in the eyes of God, the state of the world.
A humanity torn apart by hatred, injustice, oppression is incompatible with God's plan; he wants his children in solidarity and united in love.
At this point it is not difficult to define the meaning of the story of the universal flood.
The sacred author has used a myth, very popular in his time, not to teach that God loses his patience and punishes—God has never caused any flood nor any other disaster—but to urge us not to be discouraged in front of the evil existing in the world. Even when wickedness appear to have exceeded all limits, he who has faith in the Lord cultivates hope, knowing that God has decided to create a new humanity, not from the ashes of men, but from the rubbles of evil society that they have designed and built.
Today’s reading proposes a passage that ends story of the flood and sums up the message. God does not give up in the face of evil. He intervenes to repair and rebuild. He initiates a new humanity to whom he promises only good things and ensures a blessing: "I establish my covenant with you, and with every living animal with you ... never again will life be cut off by the waters of a flood" (vv. 9-11).
Take note: he does not swear not to punish people ... on the condition that they stop committing sins and behave well. He promises without asking any anything in return; he commites himself to bless always and in any case. His love is completely free.
This is the consoling message that the Bible launches, from its early chapters. God does not wait for people to become good to be generous with them. He takes a person as he or she is and, with his love, God transforms them into a new creature.
The passage ends with the image of the rainbow, sign of the first covenant made by God; a prior covenant with Abraham and had circumcision as its sign.
Noah was neither Jewish, nor Christian nor Muslim; "he was a just man, blameless among the people of his time, a man who walked with God" (Gen 6:9). He was the founder of the new humanity which knows no discrimination of races, peoples and religions. With this humanity God has made a covenant, promising salvation to all unconditionally.
This is the first manifestation of universal saving will, then explicitly affirmed in the New Testament: "God wants all to be saved and come to the knowledge of truth" (1 Tim 2:4).
We expected perhaps, as the first reading of Lent, a text that exhorts us to fasting, penance and mortification. Instead, the liturgy invites us to rejoice, proposing an assuring promise of God that the wickedness of man will never be able to frustrate his plans of love.
In this reading Peter picks up the story of the flood and uses it to explain to the Christians of his time, the effects of baptism. Noah was saved from the flood waters by means of the ark that God told him to build and with him his family and the animals were also saved, so that the creation, free from sin, could start over.
The water of baptism has the same effect: it destroys the old man and gives birth to a new man; it marks the end of sin, of corrupt life and starts a new life in the Spirit.
This renewal is possible because Christ, the Righteous One, died for sins once for all. He communicates to the church the Spirit of Life; it is He who gives the water of baptism to destroy the power of sin and death and to rise again to new life.
Every year, on the first Sunday of Lent, the gospel is on the temptations of Jesus in the desert. Mark refers to them very briefly, and uses two verses (vv. 12-13) to explain them. In front of these few lines some preachers are struggling to outline the homily. They then make use of the three temptations reported by Matthew and Luke. It is better to avoid resorting to this miserable expedient and limit oneself to the text of Mark, which is already quite rich.
We note: It is the Spirit who, after coming down on Jesus like a dove (Mk 1:10), leads him into the wilderness.
If "to tempt" is tantamount to "incite to evil," the Spirit does not do that. In the Lord's Prayer, in fact, we ask God "lead us not into temptation."
Yet, in the Bible, we read that God puts to the test people acceptable to him, not the wicked (Sir 2:5).
There are temptations that are not incitement to evil. These are the situations that the right person also has to face. These are the times when one is forced to make choices that are conducive occasions to make faith more solid and unwavering.
Those who want to grow, improve, purify, strengthen one’s commitment to God cannot be spared from these tests. Not even Jesus was spared and this brings him close to us, placing him on our side because he too "was tempted in every way just as we are, yet without sinning" (Heb 4:15).
Why does the evangelist place the trial of Jesus in the desert? What is this place?
There is no doubt that Jesus, like John the Baptist and many ascetics of his time, must have spent a period of his life in solitude, meditating and praying in some cave in the barren and desolate region that extends near the Dead Sea. So we ask: Did Mark want to restrict the time when Jesus was tempted, reducing it to the duration of this short experience?
It is not possible: this contradicts the statement quoted from the Letter to the Hebrews and renders Jesus a stranger, one who is exempted from our difficulties; one who enjoyed special privileges but was only grazed—or perhaps not—by anxieties and doubts that instead accompany us throughout life. This kind of Jesus would not interest us any longer.
The number forty clarifies, unequivocally, the intention of the evangelist. In the biblical symbolism it indicates a whole generation, with particular reference to the one who crossed the desert, tempted and died in the wilderness. The whole life of Jesus is thus depicted in these forty days in the wilderness. Throughout his life he has been subjected to the test. He entered into the desert immediately after receiving baptism from John. He started his exodus, waged war against satan, a tough fight that lasted until the moment in which, victorious, he came out of the desert, at the time of his death.
Who is Satan, this character that appears next to him?
The Hebrew word satan is not a personal name, but a common name. It indicates one who sets himself against, who places himself in front as an adversary and accuser. It was envisioned, at the time of Jesus, as an evil spirit, the enemy of the good of man, destroyer of God’s work. In our passage he is the personification of all the forces of evil against which Christ fought during the "forty days "of his short life on earth.
He presents himself again today, this antagonist of God and man, in the impulses of hatred, resentment, selfishness, greed to possess, the desire to dominate, the unruly passions that produce corruption and death. These are the Satan against which everyone, as Jesus did, is called to confront, not with practices of exorcism, but with the power of the Spirit who acts in the word of the gospel and the sacraments. It is through this inner struggle that we are offered the opportunity to mature and grow "thus we become the perfect Man, upon reachng maturity and sharing the fullness of Christ" (Eph 4:13).
In his account, from the clear symbolic value, the evangelist introduces two other characters: the wild animals, and the angels—it should be kept in mind—they do not come into play to serve Jesus at the end of the forty days. They are by his side throughout his stay in the desert. Who do they represent?
Many believe that, speaking of wild animals becoming tame, Mark refers to the heavenly state, when Adam assigned animals their names and lived with them in perfect harmony (Gen 2:19-20). With the beginning of his public life, Jesus would begin to establish universal peace in the world and new relationships with nature and with animals.
More than the book of Genesis, I believe that the Evangelist is alluding to a memorable page in the book of Daniel (Dan 7) where the wild animals are the oppressors of the world powers: the bloody Babylonian empire is represented by the lion, that of the Medes by a bear, that of the Persian a leopard, the one of Alexander the Great and the Diadochi, his successors, a fourth beast, undefined but fearsome and terrible. Instead of serving the people and establishing peace and justice, these realms have oppressed the weak, tyrannizing and enslaving whole nations for centuries.
If this is, as I believe, the reference intended by Mark, then the wild animals Jesus confronted during his lifetime are the rulers of this world: the holders of power: political, economic and religious (the Sadducees, the Sanhedrin, the high priests), spiritual leaders (scribes) who "made a show of long prayers," but "devour the widows' goods" (Mk 12:40); are those who preach God as an executioner and an enemy of sinners (the Pharisees).
Jesus has struggled to defend people, to rescue them from the clutches of institutions which, instead of serving, tyrannized them.
The evangelist wants to warn his disciples that they will have something to do with the same beasts: the economic powers that take advantage of and forced entire population to live in misery, foolish ideologies which induce them to make follies and crimes, fanaticism, religious fudamentalism and racisms.
Even the angels, like the wild animals, are identified on the basis of biblical references. The term angel does not necessarily mean a spiritual being, as is generally imagined. It means every mediator of God's salvation and is applied to anyone who becomes a tool in the hands of the Lord on behalf of humanity. Moses who led Israel in the wilderness is called "angel" (Ex 23:20.23), John the Baptist is presented by Mark as an "angel" (Mk 1:2). Angels of the Lord are those who cooperate with God's plan, who are committed to taking forward the new world begun by Christ.
During his "during forty days" Jesus met wild animals, but also many angels on his way. Angels who took care of him were certainly his parents, women who assisted him during his public life, those who shared the values proposed by him and the choices he made, who stayed at his side—"served" him—collaborating in his work of salvation.
There are many, even today, angels who, in His providence, the Lord makes appear, especially in the darkest hours, beside each of his disciples.
One who can restore peace in the life of a couple, who comforts the downcast, who points out the ways of the Lord, who communicates joy and infuses hope is an angel. There is, however, even for the disciple, the danger of becoming, perhaps in good faith, a Satan, a wild animal. It happened to Peter when he abandoned following Christ, he wanted to precede the master to teach him the way (Mk 8:33). It can happen to us if, forgetful of the gospel principles, we adapt to the "magisterium" of this world that preaches violence, abuse, hedonism, refusal of sacrifice.
In the second part of the passage, Mark at first specifies the place where Jesus started his proclamation, Galilee. Then he offers a synthesis of his message: "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; Repent and believe the gospel" (vv. 14-15).
The site chosen to inaugurate the mission has a theological meaning. Jesus did not stop in the desert where the Baptist did his work. He did not claim that the people looked for him. He let each one remain in his house and in his room. He himself moved to meet anyone who needed his understanding and his help.
He did not go directly to Jerusalem, the religious capital where the pure Jews lived, where the temple’s priests so impeccably perform their liturgies. He turned to the most despised region, the Galilee of the Gentiles. Along the banks of the lake he found fishermen mending their nets, near the customs in Capernaum he saw Levi, sitting at the tax office and called him. He entered the homes of tax collectors where sinners were waiting for him. He sat at table with them. He had a message of joy from the Lord for all the outcasts: the time of preparation has ended, the new era of history has started, the kingdom of God is near.
The kingdom of God. How many emotions this expression aroused in the Israelites! For the majority of the people it pointed to the restoration of the Davidic monarchy and the coming of the messiah to defeat and humiliate the pagan nations. For the Pharisees it was the time when everyone would observe faithfully the provisions of the law. There were the holders of political, religious and above all economic power; they did not want any new kingdom and preferred to perpetuate the existing one.
In announcing the nearness of the kingdom of God, Jesus has awakened in many ancient, dormant hopes; in others distrust, open hostility to those in power. He envisioned a radically new society, based on principles opposed to those which, until then, had characterized the relations between people. It is no longer domination, but service; not selfish hoarding of goods, the pursuit of self-interest and the race to the top, but the choice to share everything so that no one would be poor; not revenge and implacable justice of people, but forgiveness and unconditional love for the enemy.
Illusion of a dreamer? No, it is a concrete proposal, though apparently not viable, because it is contrary to our inclination who, by instinct, is taken to close in on our own advantage. "Believe in the Gospel"—Jesus recommended—trust the good news, welcome the proposal of God and the kingdom of heaven, that is "close at hand". It will be yours and will become the most intimate part of your being. It's not an unattainable utopia, it is possible, indeed, the new has already risen (2 Cor 5:17).
There is a video by Fr. Fernando Armellini with English subtitles commenting on today’s Gospel reading: