WHAT SHOULD LENT MEAN?
SERMON PREACHED BY FR. TONY NOBLE ON MARCH 1st, 2009
1 Peter 3:21 “Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you…through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.”
The first Sunday of Lent traditionally focuses on Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness. It reminds us that our keeping of Lent is in imitation of Jesus’ 40 days of prayer and fasting in the desert. Very few people would, or could, embrace exactly what Jesus did – fasting for 40 days in the desert. But we all do something to keep a practical Lent – even if just giving up chocolate or other luxuries. It is a small token of our love for God, perhaps like a kiss, but still a challenge nevertheless.
Traditionally the Gospel on this Sunday gives a description of Jesus’ fasting and the three specific temptations as found in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. However today’s gospel (Saint Mark 1:9-13) has just a brief comment: “The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. And he was in the wilderness 40 days, tempted by Satan, and he was with wild beasts, and the angels ministered to him”.
There is no vivid description of Jesus’ encounter with Satan, nor what he was going through psychologically and spiritually. It is as if Mark is simply declaring that Satan came and Jesus dealt with him. This is the ultimate message and the meaning of Lent and its climax – for in Holy Week we see Jesus triumph over Satan. Satan comes and Jesus deals with him.
What he experienced in the desert for 40 days was, of course, nothing compared to what he would experience on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. Today’s temptations in the wilderness are but a prelude to the great temptation of Maundy Thursday: “Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me”. But he triumphed then, just as he also triumphed in the wilderness.
Conquering Satan and evil is the battle all of us face as Christians day by day. The focus of Saint Mark’s Gospel today reminds us of this. That is the message and purpose of Lent – for in dealing with small temptations, our being able to say no in our discipline and our fasting, will surely enable us to say no and be more disciplined when the real tempter comes.
With this brief reference to Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness, we also have the mention of Jesus’ baptism. The other readings today also focus on the subject of Baptism. Baptism is actually one of the great themes of Lent.
We see Lent as an imitation of Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness to begin his ministry leading up to his passion and death. As Lent moves along we move surely closer to Holy Week, and that week of all weeks. But originally Lent was the season for preparing new Christians for Baptism.
In the early church Easter was when Baptisms were usually celebrated – especially during the Saturday night Easter Vigil, the night on which our Lord rose from the dead. For six weeks those who had been converted from paganism or the Jewish religion prepared for their baptism by prayer and fasting. A reminder of this takes place in the Easter Vigil when the font is blessed and we renew our Baptismal Vows and are blessed by the water newly blessed in the Service. It is a sparkling moment in a sparkling service. The Easter Vigil is still the best time for the Baptism of an adult.
Easter of course, is at the heart of Baptism. As Saint Peter says in 1 Peter 3:21: “Baptism saves you through the resurrection of Jesus”. In fact, scholars consider that 1 Peter is a sermon preached at an Easter Vigil back in the 1st Century – possibly in the catacombs. Read Saint Peter’s first Epistle and imagine the Christians in the catacombs, waiting in the dark to celebrate not only Easter, but the baptism of new converts.
Saint Paul also expounds this meaning of Baptism in a similar way in Romans 6:3-4: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into his death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life”.
As hard as it is to envisage the baptism of a young child as a death, this is exactly what happens in baptism. We die to sin and rise to new life – the new life of Jesus’ resurrection.
Saint Peter explains this in another way in today’s Epistle (1 Peter 3: 18-22), just as Noah and his family were saved through water, so we are saved through water. Noah’s Ark is nothing less than a symbol of the Holy Catholic Church, which we entered through our Baptism. So as Noah and his family entered the Ark and were saved through water, so Saint Peter argues, we are saved by water and enter the Ark which is the Church.
Saint Peter’s reference to “an appeal to God for a clear conscience” makes plain that Baptism is not magic, it requires a decision – a turning to the Lord. It requires an intention – not just on the person being baptised, but on those who celebrate it. They – the family, godparents and friends – are to be the Ark. They gather as the Church to do what the Church intends. Hence the importance of parents and godparents in the Baptism of children.
That is why the early Church insisted on such a long preparation for Baptism of Adults – in turning away from other gods or other religions they had to know quite clearly what the significance of their baptism meant.
This holy season of Lent gives us a similar period to prepare for the celebration of the death and resurrection of Christ, which are so central to the meaning of Baptism.
If we take Lent seriously it will not only renew our faith and our discipleship – it will renew our Baptisms. That is why at the conclusion of Lent we do that in the Easter Vigil. And in renewing our baptisms we will be strengthened to again turn to Christ, reject Satan, repent of our sins and put our trust in Jesus’ love. And once we will know afresh the power of his resurrection.