Homily notes: First Sunday of Lent Year B

Fr Brendan Byrne SJ 10 February 2024

Emerging victorious from his personal conflict with evil, Jesus announces the ‘good news’ of the imminent displacement of Satan’s rule by the rule or ‘kingdom’ of God.

First reading:
Genesis 9:8-15
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 24(25):4-9
Second Reading: 1 Peter 3:18-22
Gospel: Mark 1:12-15
Link to readings

At first glance, a rather odd collection of readings for this First Sunday in Lent.
A common reference to the tradition of the Flood links the First and Second Readings, while the brief Markan account of Christ’s Temptation in the desert has been expanded in the Gospel to include the summary of Jesus’ inaugural preaching (vv. 14-15). Appropriately for the beginning of Lent, this contains the summons, ‘Repent, ...’.

The First Reading, Gen 9:8-15, tells of the follow-up to the account of the great Flood that had threatened to engulf the earth – creation going into reverse, so to speak. By God’s providence one upright human being, Noah, together with his family and a selection of animals, had been preserved, creation renewed, and the human race is given a fresh start, albeit one adopting a more realistic view of the human disposition to violence and sin. As after the ‘fall’ of the first couple (Genesis 3), God graciously ‘adjusts’ to the new human situation. Just as the appearance of a rainbow signals the end of a storm and the re-emergence of sunlight, so the rainbow will function as a symbol of a renewed agreement (covenant) between Creator and creation. God’s renewed intent is to communicate life and blessing, rather than destruction.

In the biblical and later Christian tradition, the story of the Flood and the rescue of Noah (which of course, should not be taken literally) has become a leading symbol of salvation: God’s constant disposition to intervene in creation to rescue human beings and their world from the consequences of sin. The covenant made with Noah, symbolised by the rainbow, foreshadows first the covenant made with Israel at Sinai and then the ‘new and everlasting covenant’ sealed by the blood of Christ upon the cross. This final covenant, in fact, recaptures the universal scope of the covenant with Noah. Salvation is not just for Israel. Israel’s privilege is to hold the promises and finally to give birth to the universal Saviour.

The Second Reading, 1 Peter 3:18-22, seems to be taken from an early Christian hymn, quoted by the author to encourage members of the faithful experiencing persecution. Though they are suffering, and though evil forces may seem to have the upper hand, the hymn assures them of the fundamental victory of Christ.

By virtue of their baptism, they are in the same situation (in a rather far-fetched comparison) as those rescued with Noah from the waters of the Flood. Who are ‘the spirits in prison’ to whom Christ, after his death and resurrection, went to make ‘proclamation’? Many interpreters now accept the view of the Australian scholar William Dalton that what is in view here is not the ‘harrowing of Hell’ as traditionally understood: that is, Christ’s descent into the underworld before his resurrection. Rather, the risen and exalted Lord, who has triumphed over death and sin, is now proclaiming his victory to the (hostile) spiritual powers, who, in the ancient worldview, held humanity captive because of sin. The author of the letter is assuring his persecuted audience that their sufferings should not be attributed to the continuing influence of these powers. Christ’s victory is secure and, so ultimately, will be their share in it when salvation has run its full course.

The Gospel, Mark 1:12-15, stands in continuity with the earlier readings in the sense that it presents Christ, first of all, confronting the evil spiritual power (Satan) personally and then announcing the good news that the era of Satan’s overthrow has dawned with the onset of the ‘Rule (“Kingdom”) of God’.

Mark’s account of the Temptation is sparse but actually contains a great deal. Jesus has emerged from his baptism clad with the Spirit, the power of God’s love (1:11). This will be the driving force of his mission. The Spirit begins this role by ‘driving’ him into the wilderness, the habitat of wild animals (‘the beasts’) as well as evil spirits. In this dangerous situation, bereft of human comfort and resources, Jesus personally exposes himself to the onslaught of Satan, before taking up his mission to reclaim human beings from demonic control, that is, not only from the relatively rare cases of actual demonic possession but from all the captivities of body and soul that alienate human beings from God and their own true humanity.

As with Daniel in the den of lions (Dan 6:16-24), Jesus, among the beasts, rests solely on the power and providence of God. Divine care surrounds him in the shape of the ministering angels.

Emerging victorious from his personal conflict with evil, Jesus announces the ‘good news’ of the imminent displacement of Satan’s rule by the rule or ‘kingdom’ of God.

Each Lent summons us to a new alignment with this reality through deeper conversion (‘Repent!’) and faith.

Brendan Byrne, SJ, FAHA, taught New Testament at Jesuit Theological College, Parkville, Vic., for almost forty years. He is now Emeritus Professor at the University of Divinity (Melbourne). His commentaries on the Gospels can be found at Pauline Books and Media