“Beginning the Journey to the End”
First Sunday in Lent
Sunday March 1, 2009
1 Peter 3:18-22
We are entering a wonderful time of the year.
A few weeks ago, we all watched in rapt attention to see if Wiarton Willie would proclaim that winter was almost over, or whether this long cold season would last for another six weeks. Since then, we have begun to notice that the days are starting to fluctuate between ‘very cold’ and ‘less cold’, that the snow is struggling to disappear, and that the sun seems to be shining a little earlier each morning, and a little longer each afternoon. We know that spring is not yet completely here, but on our most optimistic days, we may even have already ventured out without the full winter regalia of coats, hats, boots, scarves and gloves – and, for those of us with kids at a certain stage of life, without the daunting challenge of getting wriggling bodies into snowpants.
As the month of March begins, we begin to look for signs of spring – signs that the natural world is beginning to revive from its long winter slumber. And often, over the course of the coming weeks, we will have opportunities to notice and to celebrate the growing light and the evidence of renewed life in the natural world.
And yet, it is in this very period of increasing light and of the growth of new life that we enter into the Christian season of Lent.
The season of Lent, in the Christian tradition, occupies the forty day period – excluding Sundays – that lies between Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. It is a season for reflection and remembrance, a season for prayerfulness and for preparation, as we once again prepare ourselves to stand at the foot of the cross, on Good Friday, and to remember the sad and tragic event that took place on that crude instrument of torture. Over the coming weeks, the lectionary invites us to read passages which recount events drawn from the story of Christ’s final journey to Jerusalem, with his ominous predictions of what would happen to him there, and surrounded by the growing confusion of his disciples and by pointed controversies with his adversaries.
But even though we know what the season of Lent is about, we rarely pause to consider what the word “Lent” means.
The word ‘Lent’, from which this liturgical season gets its name, is actually based on the Old English word for spring, lencten; and that Old English word was based on the combination of two Old Teutonic words, the literal translation of which meant “the lengthening of days” or “the lengthening of the daylight”. The word “lent”, therefore, reminds us that this time of year marks the natural phenomenon of the lengthening of the days, the growing of the daylight hours.
A strange and wonderful contrast is therefore presented to us. In this wonderful spring season, as the amount of light begins to grow and the signs of new life in the natural world surround us, we are invited to undertake a spiritual journey which will culminate in the extinguishing of the life of the One who was the light of the world.
Both in Lent and in Advent, it is interesting for us to ponder how our ancestors in the faith have invited us -- at least those of us who live in the Northern Hemisphere in which many of these traditions began – to frame these journeys of the Christian faith against the backdrop of the rhythms of the natural world. In the month of December, as the light of the sun begins to get shorter and shorter each day, we are invited to anticipate the birth of a light that could shine in darkness yet not be overcome by it during the seasons of Advent and Christmas. The growth of natural darkness is met with the coming of Advent light. And, in the months of March and April, as the days lengthen and the light of the sun seems to shine brighter, we are invited to make a spiritual journey towards a dark and gruesome death. The growth of natural light is met with the gathering Lenten darkness. Life and death, light and darkness, beginnings and endings – all interwoven, inviting us into wonderful paradoxes and deep reflections on the journey of life itself.
On this first Sunday in Lent, it is interesting to notice that each of the suggested lectionary texts holds up this juxtaposition of death and life, beginnings and endings, in rather fascinating ways.
Our reading from Genesis recounts the experiences of Noah and his family as they left the ark after the flood.
The story of the flood in the days of Noah -- at least, after we leave Sunday School – confronts us with a host of questions. Must we believe that the story of Noah recounted a literal historical event? How could any boat carry two of every living creature on earth? How do we ponder the ethics of such a destructive flood, particularly if we attribute the responsibility for it to God? And when we learn that versions of this flood story can be found in many ancient cultures, and that the Hebrew version of this story was clearly dependent upon some of those other traditions, what does such knowledge mean for our acceptance of this text? Must we believe that this story needs to be interpreted in strictly literal terms in order for its meaning to be taken seriously?
Such questions, though potentially interesting, usually distract us from the meaning that this ancient text is trying to convey to us. The point of the story is that the injustices and evils that were taking place in the world had the power to provoke God to anger – and, as an earlier passage in Genesis suggested, God was sorry that humanity had even been created. The God of these texts is not indifferent to injustice and to evil.
But all hope was not lost. Rather than completely eradicate the world, a good man -- Noah – and his family were offered a new beginning. After forty days of rain – during which water, which was a basic necessity of life, became a vicious tool of death and destruction – creation was given a new beginning. But the dynamism of these ancient texts – and, most intriguingly, the dynamism in the character of God in these accounts -- is revealed in the fact that God saw the destruction that had occurred, and resolved never to allow such widespread devastation to happen again. God promised that a flood would never again be the cause of complete cataclysmic destruction in the world. A rainbow was set in the sky to serve as a reminder – both to God and to humanity -- of this covenantal promise.
The symbol of the rainbow is an interesting one to ponder. We all know, nowadays, that rainbows are little more than a small amount of light refracted through the droplets of water that stay in the air after a rainstorm. But the ancients looked at that same phenomenon, and saw much more. They saw a symbol of promise, a sign of grace. When they saw a rainbow, they were reminded that after the rain had fallen, the sun was shining again. When they saw a rainbow, they were invited to remember both the destructive power of death, and of the renewed promise of life. Life and death, beginnings and endings, light and darkness --- the story of the flood and the rainbow interweaves these themes in a profound and memorable way.
Our reading from 1 Peter continues this theme, but in a slightly different manner. The author of 1 Peter draws on the story of Noah as a foreshadowing, a prefiguring of the symbol of baptism. Just as Noah and his family had passed through the flood on their journey towards a renewed creation, and just as Christ had passed through death into a new and glorious life in the presence of God, so too those who had passed through the waters of baptism had symbolically passed through death into a new life in Christ. After discussing the fact that eight people had been saved in the days of Noah, we read, “and baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you – not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities and powers made subject to him.”
This image of the passage through the waters of baptism as a symbol of the journey through death to life continues to lie at the heart of Christian baptism. Whether a person is baptized as a child or as an adult, one of the key themes that is woven into the sacrament of baptism is the image of the journey from death to life, the call to put an end to an old life of self-centeredness and to begin a new life of self-giving compassion; and the invitation to those who have been baptized to continually die to themselves in order to embrace the true and everlasting life that Christ offers. The waters of baptism, like the waters of the flood, interweave the idea of life and death, of an end and a beginning.
Our reading from the Gospel of Mark continues this theme as well, although in perhaps more subtle ways. Today’s text contains three movements, three scenes – first, we are told the story of Jesus’ baptism; second, his time of temptation in the wilderness; and third, the beginning of his public ministry with the declaration that the time was fulfilled; that the kingdom of God had come near; and that people were to repent and to believe the good news.
So how does this text reflect this interweaving of life and death?
Like the people of Israel, who passed through the Red Sea before being led into the wilderness for forty years before their time to enter the Promised Land had come, Jesus’ own journey through the waters of the Jordan, out into the wilderness for forty days before he began to proclaim that the time for the kingdom of God had come serves as the beginning of a new chapter in Jesus’ life and in the history of our world.
Even though the Gospel of Mark includes none of the details that Matthew or Luke includes – with their elaborate narratives about the debates between Jesus and Satan and the need for Jesus to resist the invitations to use his power for material comfort, political power and spiritual adulation -- it is nonetheless important for us to remember what the wilderness symbolized. The wilderness was a place of great danger, of risk, and of possible death. To wander in the wilderness without food or water, was neither an easy nor a safe endeavour. The possibility of death was all too real. Like the forty days of the flood, and like the Israelite’s forty years in the wilderness, Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness forced him to confront the possibility of threat, of danger, and even of death – and to learn to depend entirely upon God. The wilderness was a place where the fragile balance between life and death was an ever present reality. And yet, before Jesus was ready to proclaim that the kingdom of life had arrived, he needed to undergo that forty day period of struggle, of challenge, of temptation. He needed to confront the reality of the wilderness.
In each of these texts, therefore, as in the season of Lent, life and death are inextricably interwoven. The flood and the rainbow; the waters of baptism as a symbol of death and of life; the wilderness of danger and the kingdom of God’s love; the Lenten juxtaposition of the lengthening of light, and the extinguishing of light – all are a part of the same journey.
And what is important for us to remember, as we begin this Lenten journey towards Good Friday, is that these interwoven themes are not just a concern for old biblical stories or for liturgical seasons.
Rather, they reflect the journey of human life. That is, like Christ himself, every one of us is on a journey toward death. To make such a statement is not an overly morbid thing to do – it is, in fact, reality. We all are going to die. Even if we seek to allow the light to increase and to grow within us -- as we are called to do as Christians – the journey of light is the journey towards the darkness of death. And, in the end, this Lenten tension between light and darkness, between life and death will seem to resolve itself on the side of death.
At the end of our journey through life, as with Christ himself, death will claim every one of us. The darkness will come. Death shall have the final word.
Of course, that is only true if Good Friday is the end of the story.
But it’s not.
Thanks be to God.