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The First Sunday of Lent
February 18, 2024

Watch this homily! (Begins at 33:08)


     Lent! We Catholics like Lent. We may not say so, but we do. We like the ashes of Ash Wednesday and we even like sacrifice and self-denial. We don’t always do them so well, but we like the thought of them! We like Lent. But Lent is more than ashes, sacrifice and self-denial. In the early Church, Lent was about preparing for baptism. It still is. And for those of us who are already baptized, Lent is the ideal time for us to get in touch with the meaning of our baptism.

     The readings today help us do just that. In both the reading from Genesis and the reading from the First Letter of Peter, Noah is center stage - Noah whose ark brought him, his family, and all that great array of amazing creatures over the swirling waters of death to a place of freedom and safety. Noah, with whom God made a covenant of life and hope, signified by a great rainbow in the sky.

      The Church didn’t give us those readings just because the Noah story is a great story (although it is); no, we got the Genesis reading because the Noah story prefigures the sacrament of baptism, and we got the reading from the Letter of Peter because it uses the Noah story to explain baptism. The waters of baptism are, like the waters of the Great Flood, about death and about life - Christ’s death, Christ’s life, and it is through the sacramental waters that we share in Christ’s death and life.

     I’ve always thought that we Pacific North Westerners have a head start on understanding baptism. We know a lot about water.  We have beautiful lakes, raging rivers and majestic waterfalls. Green trees and the greenest of fields. And we have rain! We have destructive floods, too, and landslides, and soggy days and leaky roofs. We know from experience that water has two meanings: water means death but it also means life. And that gives us a head-start on understanding baptism.

     In the gospel reading, it’s Jesus who speaks to us of baptism. Well, almost. The gospel actually began right after the baptism of Jesus. No sooner had he come up out of the waters, than the Spirit sent him out into the desert where for forty days, he was put to the test by Satan. I think of this time in the desert as Jesus’ preparation – his conditioning, if you will - for his second baptism, the one he spoke of when he said, “There is a baptism with which I must be baptized, and how great is my anguish until it is accomplished.” The baptism Jesus was talking about there was, of course, his death, and his long days in the desert wrestling with the power of evil could only have steeled him for the great battle that awaited him on Calvary.

       My friends, the Church wants us to think of these things during Lent. The Church gives us six full weeks to think long and hard about our baptism - and not just to think about it: to wake up to our baptism, for the church knows that, viewed with the eyes of faith, nothing more important has ever happened to us than our baptism.

     The Church also, as you know, focuses during these grace-filled days of Lent on those who are preparing for baptism. They are full of excitement and anticipation because their Lenten journey will culminate when they walk into the baptismal pool at the great Easter Vigil.

     Baptism. Preparing for it or waking up to it - that's what Lent is all about. We may more typically think of Lent in terms of ashes and abstinence, of desserts denied or drinks declined, and that's OK - in fact it's good - as long as those penitential practices bring us in touch with our baptism. Think of them as the dying part of baptism - the drowning waters, if you will, the death to sin and selfishness.

     Baptism! It is important to remember what we heard in today’s gospel: the same Jesus who one minute found himself basking in the baptismal glory of being God's beloved son, in another minute found himself in the desert wrestling with the forces of evil, struggling mightily against Satan's enticements to sin - insidious temptations that could have seemed quite sensible at the time - struggling mightily but never giving in.

     That was Jesus' story. Is it our story? I believe it is the story of each one of us - the story of every follower of Christ. With this difference: all too often, we part company with Jesus by forsaking the struggle and taking the easy way out. We would like our baptism to be some sort of inoculation against sin and life’s painful struggles. It isn’t, of course. Our baptism is a passport to glory but it is no shortcut to glory. What baptism gives us is the church: this community of believers to walk with us and support us on our journey and, of course, it gives us the assurance of God's grace, more powerful by far than even the most discouraging of human weaknesses.

     My friends, water does tell the story. Water that drowns and destroys, water that cleanses, refreshes and gives life.  The story told by water is our story - the story of good mixed with evil, of sin washed by grace, of failure and triumph, of life and death. No, I should have said "death and life" because in this particular story, no matter how it may seem to us now, in this particular story it’s life - not death - that gets the last word!

Father Michael G. Ryan





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