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First Sunday of Lent, March 1, 2009 (Cycle B)

Scripture Readings
First: Gn 9:8-15
Second: 1 Pt 3:18-22
Gospel: Mk 1:12-15

Prepared by: Fr. Lawrence J. Donohoo, O.P.

1. Subject Matter
• First Reading: God’s covenant with all humankind and all living beings sets limits to divine
punishment and establishes the priority of salvation over strict justice.
• Second Reading: A compact passage that begins with the teleology of salvation links this theme with
the Holy Spirit, Christ’s descent into hell, the flood, baptism, Christ’s resurrection, and his glorious
• Gospel: An equally compact Gospel briefly describes Jesus in the desert and John’s arrest before
summarizing Jesus’ inaugural address.
2. Exegetical Notes
• “A covenant is a solemn agreement between parties, sworn before the gods who oversee oaths. In v 9
it is essentially a promise, made originally to Noah (6:18) and now extended to all living creatures.
Noah’s free acceptance is nonetheless presupposed. . . .Like the covenant with Abraham, this covenant
has a sign: the rainbow, which will signal the end of future rainstorms before they destroy the world.”
• “The context [of the second reading] is that of an exhortation to Christians, in danger from their social
alienation, to remain faithful. . . .The association of these spirits with the flood gives the writer an
opportunity of a typological development (3:20-22): just as Noah was rescued from the evil world of
his day by water, so are Christians rescued through the water of baptism. In the new covenant,
Christians make a pledge to live in keeping with God’s will. This is effective only through the power
of the risen and triumphant Christ (3:21-22).” (NJBC)
• “The brevity and simplicity of this Marcan account contrasts with the elaborate scriptural debate
between the devil and Jesus in Matt 43:1-13; Luke 4:1-11. The fundamental idea in both versions is
the same: the Son of God overcame testing by Satan before he began his public ministry.” (NBJC)
• “Rather than recalling Israel’s wandering in the wilderness for 40 years, the number was an echo of
the 40-day testing undergone by Moses (Exod 34:28) and Elijah (1 Kgs 19:8).” (NJBC)
• “The ‘wasteland’ signifies a place of emptiness, aridity, and isolation. It is a lonely place devoid of all
comforts, conveniences, and consolations. In the desert’s brutal barrenness, one is forced to confront
the full reality of oneself without amusements, amenities, diversion, or distractions.” (P. J. Cameron)
• “‘In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless wasteland’
(Gn 1:2). In the beginning of his ministry, Jesus enters the wasteland to prepare for his work of
creation. For, just as the Lord once found his people ‘in a wilderness, a wasteland of howling desert’
(Dt 32:10), so too will Jesus find human beings in the wasteland of sorrow, suffering, and sin. . .
.Similarly, the ‘wild beasts’ signify what is untamed and raging in humanity, especially idolatry,
fickleness, and faithlessness.” (P. J. Cameron)
• “Euangelion echoes the Gk terminology of Dt-Isa (see 40:9; 41:27, 52:7; 60:6; 61:1-2). The good
news came from God (subjective gen.) and had God’s action as its content (objective gen.).” (NJBC)
• “In Judaism of Jesus’ time, the ‘kingdom of God’ referred primarily to God’s future display of power
and judgment, to the future establishment of God’s rule over all creation. Here it is said to ‘have drawn
near’. . . .God’s kingdom will demand a reorientation of life, as John had already made clear (1:4).”
3. References to the Catechism of the Catholic Church
• 2569 Noah's offering is pleasing to God, who blesses him and through him all creation, because his
heart was upright and undivided; Noah, like Enoch before him, “walks with God.” This kind of prayer
is lived by many righteous people in all religions.
• 56 After the unity of the human race was shattered by sin God at once sought to save humanity part by
part. The covenant with Noah after the flood gives expression to the principle of the divine economy
toward the “nations,” in other words, towards men grouped “in their lands, each with [its] own
language, by their families, in their nations.”
• 128 The Church, as early as apostolic times, and then constantly in her Tradition, has illuminated the
unity of the divine plan in the two Testaments through typology, which discerns in God's works of the
Old Covenant prefigurations of what he accomplished in the fullness of time in the person of his
incarnate Son.
• 632 The frequent New Testament affirmations that Jesus was “raised from the dead” presuppose that
the crucified one sojourned in the realm of the dead prior to his resurrection. This was the first
meaning given in the apostolic preaching to Christ's descent into hell: that Jesus, like all men,
experienced death and in his soul joined the others in the realm of the dead. But he descended there as
Savior, proclaiming the Good News to the spirits imprisoned there.
• 845 [The Church] is prefigured by Noah’s ark, which alone saves from the flood.
• 1219 The Church has seen in Noah's ark a prefiguring of salvation by Baptism, for by it “a few, that is,
eight persons, were saved through water”: “The waters of the great flood you made a sign of the
waters of Baptism, that make an end of sin and a new beginning of goodness” (Roman Missal, Easter
Vigil 42, Blessing of Water).
• 538 The Gospels speak of a time of solitude for Jesus in the desert immediately after his baptism by
John. Driven by the Spirit into the desert, Jesus remains there for forty days without eating; he lives
among wild beasts, and angels minister to him. At the end of this time Satan tempts him. . .Jesus
rebuffs these attacks, which recapitulate the temptations of Adam in Paradise and of Israel in the
desert, and the devil leaves him “until an opportune time.”
• 541 “To carry out the will of the Father Christ inaugurated the kingdom of heaven on earth.” Now the
Father's will is “to raise up men to share in his own divine life.” He does this by gathering men around
his Son Jesus Christ. This gathering is the Church, “on earth the seed and beginning of that kingdom.”
• 1427 Jesus calls to conversion. This call is an essential part of the proclamation of the kingdom: “The
time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel.” In the Church's
preaching this call is addressed first to those who do not yet know Christ and his Gospel. Also,
Baptism is the principal place for the first and fundamental conversion. It is by faith in the Gospel and
by Baptism that one renounces evil and gains salvation, that is, the forgiveness of all sins and the gift
of new life.
4. Patristic Commentary
• “Because all that Christ did and suffered was for our teaching, he began after his baptism to dwell in
the wilderness and fought against the devil. This was so that every baptized person might patiently
sustain greater temptations after his [Christ’s] baptism, and not be troubled--as if that which happened
to Christ was contrary to his expectation--but might rather bear up against all things and come off as
the conqueror. . . . And the reason why it is not said that that he simply went into the wilderness, but
rather that he was driven, is that you may understand that it was done according to the word of Divine
Providence. By which also Christ shows that no one should thrust himself into temptation, but that
those who are from some other state driven into temptation nonetheless remain conquerors.” (St. John
• “And that no one might doubt by what sort of spirit he said that Christ was driven into the wilderness,
Luke [n.b.] has purposely premised that “Jesus, being full of the Spirit, returned from Jordan,” and
then has added, “and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness.” It is thus clear that the evil spirit
should not be thought to have any power over him who, being full of the Holy Spirit, departed to
wherever the Spirit was willing to go, and did whatever he was willing to do.” (St. Bede the
• “But the kingdom of God is essentially the same as the kingdom of heaven, though they differ in
idea.” (Origen)
• “Since then the time was fulfilled, ‘when the fullness of times was come, and God sent His son,’ it was
fitting that the race of man should obtain the last dispensation of God. And therefore he says, ‘for the
kingdom of heaven is at hand.’” (Pseudo-Chrysostom)
• “‘Repent,’ therefore, ‘and believe’; that is, renounce dead works; for of what use is believing without
good works? The merit of good works does not, however, bring to faith, but faith begins in order that
good works may follow.” (St. Bede the Venerable)
5. Examples from the Saints and Other Exemplars
• St. Anthony of Egypt and St. Pachomius were among the founding fathers of monasticism, who
returned to the desert in order to hear more clearly the word of the Lord, to watch his transforming
power at work in the forbidding environment of the human heart within the setting of the earthly
desert, and to build communities that attempted to embody cells of the kingdom of God.
• Similarly, Blessed Charles de Foucauld combined in his life both halves of today’s Gospel. He lived as
a semi-hermit in the Saharan desert in southern Algeria by living the life of the desert people, the
Touareg, and sharing their hardships. His decade-long study of their language led to the posthumous,
four-volume publication of a dictionary of their language. The desert, then, was both his locus of
personal conversion and the venue of ministry. And it was there that he died, murdered by Arab rebels
protesting against French colonialism.
6. Quotations from Benedict XVI
• “In the forty days of the preparation for Easter, we endeavor to get away from the heathenism that
weighs us down, that is always driving us away from God, and we set off toward him once again. So,
too, at the beginning of the Eucharist, in the confession of sin, we are always trying to take up this path
again, to set out, to go to the mountain of God’s word and God’s presence.”
• “We must learn that it is only in the silent, barely noticeable things that what is great takes place, that
man becomes God’s image and the world once more becomes the radiance of God’s glory. Let us ask
the Lord to give us a receptivity to his gentle presence; let us ask him to help us not to be so deafened
and desensitized by this world’s loud outcry that our receptivity fails to register him.”
• “Our experience, then, is of a Church in the wilderness, a Church in her forty-day period. It is one of
exposure to emptiness, to a world that seems, religiously speaking, to have become wordless,
imageless, soundless; exposure to a world in which the heavens over us are dark and distance and
impalpable. And yet for us too and for the Church of our day this time in the wilderness can become a
time of grace in which a new love can grow out of the suffering induced by God’s distance from us.”
• “The purpose of Lent is to keep alive in our consciousness and our life the fact that being a Christian
can only take the form of becoming a Christian ever anew; that it is not an event now over and done
with but a process requiring constant practice.”
• “If individuals are to become Christians they need the strength to overcome; they need the power to
stand fast against the natural tendency to let themselves be carried along. Life in the most inclusive
sense has been defined as ‘resistance to the pull of gravity.’ Only where such effort is expended is
there life. . .The human person is the being which does not become itself automatically. . . .It becomes
itself always and only by struggling against the tendency simply to vege3tate and by dint of a
discipline that is able to rise above the pressures of routine and to liberate the self from the
compulsions of utilitarian goals and instincts.”
• “The Lenten season is an invitation to relive with Jesus the forty days he spent in the desert, praying
and fasting, before undertaking his public mission. . .This is the authentic and central program of the
Lenten Season: to listen to the Word of truth, to live, speak, and do the truth, to reject lies that poison
humanity and are the door to all evils. . . .Lent stimulates us to let the Word of God penetrate our life
and in this way to know the fundamental truth: who we are, where we come from, where we must go,
what path we must take in life.”
7. Other Considerations
• The first reading offers the setting of conversion in God’s merciful beneficence; the Gospel announces
its moment and content; the second reading explicates its enactment in the heart of the baptized.
• Observe the “word painting” of the second reading that begins on the earth, descends into the past and
into the bowels of the earth, and ascends to the resurrection.
• Today’s Gospel overlaps with the Gospel of the Third Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B.
• In the desert, there are four principals: wild beasts, Satan, Jesus, and angels. Missing are other human
beings. This unique constellation of players allows for a distillation and concentration of spiritual
• It is customary on the First Sunday of Lent to preach on the three temptations of Christ, but the Gospel
of Mark helps us to avoid this temptation by not mentioning them. Instead, we might ponder the
mystery of suffering that marks the Lenten season and all three readings: the promise made to Noah
follows the terrible suffering of the deluge; the Letter of Peter teaches us that Christ suffered for our
sake; and Mark's account of Jesus in the desert summarizes terrible trials he underwent of soul and
• These four statements of Jesus present the Gospel in the nutshell. The first two statements are in the
indicative mood that, like the first reading, provide the setting for conversion. The second two
statements are in the imperative demand that require our response. Yet all four words are
“sacramental” by achieving what they express: they give the receiver the power to put Christ’s
program for reform (not ours) into effect. Distinguish, then, the divine promise with its necessary
correspondence of grace with our own programs for reform that, good as they may be, do not carry
with them the guarantee of success.
Recommended Resources
Benedict XVI. Benedictus: Day by Day with Pope Benedict XVI. Edited by Peter John Cameron. Yonkers:
Magnificat, 2006.
Brown, Raymond A., Joseph A. Fitzmyer and Roland E. Murphy, eds. The New Jerome Biblical
Commentary. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: 1990.
Cameron, Peter John. To Praise, To Bless, To Preach - Cycle C. Huntington: Our Sunday Visitor, 2000.
Thomas Aquinas, St. Catena Aurea: Commentary on the Four Gospels. Works of the Fathers. Vol. 2.
London, 1843. Reprinted by The St. Austin Press, 1997.