Scripture in Depth
The purpose of the Lenten readings is to prepare the people of God for participation in the paschal feast. The Old Testament readings focus on Israel’s salvation history as the presupposition of, preparation for, and in some respects a prefigurement of, the redemptive act of God in Christ. The New Testament readings are either expositions of the meaning of the cross or of the believers’ participation in salvation through baptism.
The gospel readings of year B begin with the Marcan temptation and transfiguration stories on the first two Sundays, which are traditionally associated with those events. Then follows a series of readings from the Fourth Gospel containing predictions of Christ’s death on the cross and interpretations of its meaning. These gospels would form an admirable basis for a series of homilies on the subject of the cross.
Reading I: Genesis 9:8-15
This reading comes from the P (Priestly) version of the flood story. The J (Yahwist) story speaks of the divine promise, P of the divine covenant as the outcome of the flood. It is characteristic of P that it postulates a series of covenants, whereas J and E (Elohist) feature only the one basic covenant (J: Sinai; E: Horeb).
The covenant with Noah is distinguished from other Old Testament covenants in that it is made not with Israel only but with the whole of humanity. In this covenant God promises never again to destroy the earth by a flood. This is a pictorial statement of the biblical faith in divine preservation. It is God’s will ultimately not to destroy the earth but to redeem it.
As usual in the Bible, the covenant is accompanied by a token or sign. In this case it is a God-given sign—the rainbow. The ancients, of course, were unaware of the laws of the refraction of light. Therefore this feature of the flood story is in part an “etiological myth,” that is, a story designed to explain the origin of an enigmatic phenomenon.
These two features of the story—the universal covenant of preservation and its accompanying sign—are important theologically in their own right. However, the point of this reading today, as the second reading shows, lies in the fact that Noah’s flood is treated in Christian thought, and already in the New Testament, as a type of baptism.
Responsorial Psalm: 25:4-5, 6-7, 8-9
A slightly different arrangement of these verses was used on the twenty-sixth Sunday of the year in series A. Here the refrain suitably matches the flood story, with its reference to Yhwh’s covenant and to his love and truth, of which the rainbow is a sign.
Reading II: 1 Peter 3:18-22
Behind this passage there probably lies an early Christological hymn:
1. For Christ suffered for our sins once for all,
2. in order to bring us to God,
3. He was put to death in the flesh,
4. but made alive in the spirit,
5. in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison
6. who has gone into heaven
and is at the right hand of God
7. with angels, authorities, and powers having been
made subject to him.
The first two lines express the early Palestinian and Pauline doctrine of the atoning efficacy of Christ’s death. It was “for our sins” and it “brings us to God.” The third and fourth lines use Hellenistic language of the two spheres—the “flesh” (the earthly sphere) and the “spirit” (the heavenly sphere; see Rom 1:3-4 and 1 Tim 3:16).
Since by the end of line 4 we have already come to the resurrection, it follows that the preaching to the spirits in prison is performed by the already risen Christ. It has nothing to do with a descensus ad inferos between the death and the resurrection, as in the Apostles’ Creed. It expresses the early Christian interpretation of the death and exaltation of Christ as a triumph over the powers of evil.
This means, further, that the spirits in prison are not the dead but cosmic powers of evil. Hence, what Christ preaches to them is not the gospel of God’s redeeming love, so that they may have a chance to repent, but the announcement of their final defeat. Line 6 speaks of the ascension, and line 7 is a résumé of the subjection of the powers first mentioned in line 5.
The first part of 1 Peter (to 4:11) consists of a baptismal homily. The author has taken the traditional hymn and adapted it to his baptismal purpose by a somewhat complex insertion. He understands the “spirits in prison” to refer, not to the cosmic powers, as in the original hymn, but to the disobedient spirits at the time of Noah.
This could mean either the wicked angels of Genesis 6 or the wicked of Noah’s generation, who were destroyed in the flood. As a result, the “preaching” now becomes a preaching of salvation. The dead are given a chance to repent. By introducing the reference to Noah, the author acquires an opening for a typological treatment of Noah’s flood with reference to Christian baptism.
This insertion, as noted, is complex, and not easy to interpret. “Saved through water” may mean either that Noah and his sons passed through the water and so escaped, the water being a hostile element that might have drowned them; or it can mean that water was the means whereby the ark was brought to safety. In view of the analogy drawn between the waters of the flood and the water of baptism, the second meaning seems preferable.
There is, in fact, a double typology here: the first between the flood and the water of baptism, and the second between the eight persons in the ark and the Christian community. Many medieval fonts in England portray Noah’s ark as a type of the Church, and the notion may already be present here.
Finally, the author adds an interpretation of Christian baptism (1 Pet 3:21b). The stress on water, he insists, must not be taken in a materialistic sense, as though the whole meaning of baptism resided in the physical washing. Baptism is not the removal of dirt from the body but, literally, “an appeal to God for a good conscience.”
The RSV translation indicates that there is uncertainty over the meaning of this phrase. We would take it to mean an answer given to God and proceeding from a good conscience. At baptism there was scrutiny of the candidate, eliciting the fact that he/she came to baptism with a good conscience, that is, with repentance of sins and faith in Jesus as Savior.
One might be surprised that the author does not replace the materialistic interpretation of baptism with a sacramental interpretation. He speaks, not of what God does in and through baptism (though this is implied when he speaks of the type where, in our interpretation, the waters of the flood are a means of salvation), but of the candidate’s part in baptism.
The effect, however, is to give a comprehensive instruction on baptism that emphasizes both God’s part (in the type) and the response of the candidate (in the antitype).
Gospel: Mark 1:12-15
The Marcan form of the temptation narrative is extremely brief. Both Matthew (whose version we are more familiar with from the traditional pericopes) and Luke expand the story from their common source (the Q material). Mark lacks the threefold temptation and the statement that Jesus fasted.
It is even possible that he intends to suggest that the angels fed Jesus during the forty days (note that the Greek word for “waited on” is in the imperfect tense, suggesting an action over a prolonged period).
This in turn hints at a Moses/Elijah typology (the manna in the wilderness is called “the bread of the angels” in Ps 78:25, and Elijah is sustained by ravens during his forty-day fast).
The mention of the wild beasts suggests a further piece of typology. In Ps 91:11-13 we are told that the righteous person will be protected by the angels and will be immune from the attacks of wild beasts. Even more striking is a passage from The Testament of Naphtali (from the intertestamental collection known as The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs). Here the patriarch Naphtali says to his sons:
The devil shall flee from you
And the wild beasts shall flee from you.
And the angels shall cleave to you.
Here we get the same three features as in the temptation story—the devil, wild beasts, and angels. Perhaps there is even the thought here that Christ is the second Adam, who restores the harmony of nature previously destroyed by Adam’s fall. Satan put in his usual claim to a son of Adam, but this time he met his match.
Thus, for all its brevity, the Marcan form of the temptation narrative is particularly rich in meaning. Mark is not interested in the psychological experience of Jesus but in proclaiming him as the new Israel, the new Moses, the new Elijah, the righteous man of God, and the new Adam, through whom the powers of evil are defeated and the peace of paradise restored.
Reginald H. Fuller
**From Saint Louis University