lent The Sánchez Archives

Year B

Patricia Datchuck Sánchez

A Shift of Focus

GENESIS 9:8-15
1 PETER 3:18-22
MARK 1:12-15

For the better part of my life, I have thought of Lent as a season of introspection . . . a time of taking personal inventory . . . a period of soul-searching and self-examination. These six weeks, set aside each year by the church, have afforded me an annual opportunity for a sort of spiritual spring cleaning. I have looked at Lent as an invitation to recognize my failures and sinfulness, to seek forgiveness and to form a new resolve in order to grow deeper in faith, more fervent in love and firmer in hope.

Admittedly, this personal experience of Lent is necessary and important, however, if I look only within myself, my focus becomes too narrow, my horizons too limited, my ideals too provincial. But there is another aspect of this season which merits consideration.

Through the readings, signs and bywords which characterize the Lenten respite, the church challenges each believer to turn his/her gaze away from self in order to look at God.

Isn’t this shift in perspective precisely what is meant by repentance? To turn to God, to focus and to center on God is at the very heart of the experience of conversion. In Hebrew the word shubh means to do an about-face or to change one’s direction; in Greek, the term metanoia connotes a change of mind and of heart which the ancients believed was the seat of the intellect and will. But, Lent is not merely a time for making a change in my direction, or my mind and my heart; this is a season for putting on the mind and heart of God which has been made known to us in Jesus.

Furthermore, this season is more appropriately observed when navel-gazing is replaced by a God-like altruism that stretches a myopic vision of life and compels me to look not only at God but also at others, and, to do so with new eyes and a warmer heart and with open hands.

In illustration of the shift of focus toward which Lent prompts us, I would offer one of the works of the painter William Zdinak. At a point in his life when he had become frustrated with the seeming emptiness of his success as an artist, Zdinak was commissioned to produce a picture for a religious art show. For weeks he stared at the empty canvas, unable to formulate an idea and unwilling to resort to the sentimentality that too often characterizes religious art. He was haunted by the words of Thomas Merton who said, “If there were no other proof of the infinite patience of God with men, a very good one could be found in God’s toleration of the pictures that are painted. . . under the pretext of being in God’s honor.”

With a prayer to the God of patience, Zdinak turned his attention away from himself toward God and began to paint. When he finished, he had created a likeness of Christ in ruddy skin tones, with kind eyes and handsome Mediterranean features. While his work was well done, it was not unlike so many others which were hung on display for the art show. However, when viewers drew nearer to the painting, they were surprised to find that Christ’s head was actually a composite of scores of smaller faces. Represented were men, women and children of every ethnic background, of all races and walks of life. Included among the myriad faces were notables like Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Abraham Lincoln, and John Kennedy. When viewers drew back from the painting, the mosaic of human faces blended once again to reflect the image of Christ.

At the beginning of a yet another Lenten season, William Zdinah’s painting reminds me that this is a time for directing my eyes and my energies away from myself toward the person and mission of Jesus Christ and to find therein, the faces of all my sisters and brothers, whose needs I am called to recognize and serve.

GENESIS 9:8-15

Great care has been taken during the season of Lent to keep the collective vision of the gathered assembly focused on the Christ-event which reaches its climax during Holy Week. The first readings from each Lenten Sunday present some aspect of Israel’s salvation history as it prepared for and prefigured the saving work of Jesus. The second readings, drawn from the early church’s correspondence, focus on the manner in which believers appropriate and participate in the gift of salvation, viz., through the sacrament of baptism. Lenten gospels center on Jesus and the moments of his ministry that led to the ultimate gift of himself on the cross and the victory of his resurrection.

One of Lent’s many wonderful signs is featured in today’s first reading from the primeval history of Genesis. Etiologically, verses 12-15 explain the origin of the rainbow as a sort of divine memo, hung colorfully across the sky to remind God of the covenant made with Noah. As a phenomenon of nature, the rainbow appeared after the floodwaters had receded; it reappeared thereafter, following a rainfall, as a sign that the earth, by God’s promise, would never again be destroyed by flood.

By now, most Christians are aware that flood stories were prevalent in the literatures of the ancient near eastern peoples. In fact, the Genesis flood narrative is remarkably similar to the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh. The story’s protagonist Gilgamesh is portrayed as searching for immortality. On his way he finds an ancient ancestor Utnapishtim who relates the story of how he had become immortal. According to the story, the council of the gods had whimsically plotted to destroy humankind by flood. Ea, the god of wisdom warned Utnapishtim to build a boat to save his family. After the storm, the boat came to rest safely on a mountain and birds were sent forth to see if the waters had ceased. This being the case, Utnapishtim offered sacrifices to the gods who, in turn, rewarded him with life unending.

When the Genesis authors adapted this flood story for use in the primeval history, it featured the one and only God. The flood was not the result of capriciousness but viewed as divine punishment for sin. Rather than immortality, Noah was granted a covenantal relationship with God. Those who continue to search for remnants of the ark on mountains in the Sinai may miss the mythic beauty and theological purpose of this lovely narrative.

Theologically, the mythic account of Noah, the ark and the various living creatures, celebrates the continuity of creation. In their collaborative commentary on this narrative, James Harris, Jerome Ross and Miles Jones (Proclamation, Interpreting the Lessons of the Church year, Fortress Press, Minneapolis: 1996) have explained, it is humans who corrupt creation and unleash the unstabilizing forces within it. But the preservation and stability of creation and the certainty of life lie in the custody of the Creator. These gifts are guaranteed when human beings abide in the living space provided by God; this living space is the covenant which God has made with the world.

Today, we are reminded that we are sharers in and beneficiaries of that living space or covenant. As such we are to be responsible stewards of creation, respectful of its balance and mindful of not to corrupt or squander its riches.

1 PETER 3:18-22

Christian architects in medieval England were fond of designing baptismal fonts in the shape of an ark because they, like the author of 1 Peter, regarded Noah’s ark as a type of the church. It would appear that from the early centuries of the church, believers recognized the double typology between the Noah narrative and baptism.

As Reginald Fuller (Preaching the New Lectionary, The Liturgical Press, Collegeville: 1974) has explained, by introducing the reference to Noah (v. 20), the author of 1 Peter created an opening for the typological treatment which follows. Saved “through the water” may mean that Noah and company escaped the hostile fury of the flood because of the ark, or that the floodwaters were the means by which the ark floated to safety. Just as the waters of the flood saved Noah, so Christian baptismal waters initiate believers into the salvific process. Similarly, just as Noah’s family was saved by the ark, so are believers saved within the ark of Noah (or bark of Peter) which is the Christian community.

Writing near the end of the first Christian century (ca. 90 C.E.), 1 Peter was pseudonymously attributed to Peter and was addressed to the largely gentile Christian churches in the rural Roman provinces in Asia Minor. One of the seven letters known as the catholic or general letters because they were not sent to a specific community, the literary genre of 1 Peter remains a matter of debate. Some scholars identify the bulk of the letter (1:3-4:11) as a baptismal homily or liturgy. Others believe that 1 Peter is based on early christological hymn (2:21-24) and a collection of credal formulae (3:18-19, 22). Still others cite a series of four hymns couched within the literary context of a letter (1:3-5; 2:22-25; 3:18-22; 5:5-9). One of the great joys of sharing in God’s eternal reign will be the opportunity to inquire of the ancient author as to his/her literary intent and theological purpose.

In addition to Christian baptism, this pericope from 1 Peter affirms the efficaciousness of the saving death and resurrection of Jesus, in which believers participate through baptism. Christ’s triumph over sin and death was understood as a victory over Satan and the powers of evil. In the realm of the spirit (v. 18), i.e. in his risen state, Christ “went to preach to the spirits in prison” (v. 19).

Not to be confused with the “descent into hell” or “to the dead”, as in the Apostles’ Creed, Christ, in the process of being raised, declared his victory to the imprisoned spirits or cosmic forces of evil which were believed to inhabit the second heaven (2 Enoch 7:1-5). In other words, it was in the triumph of going “up to heaven” and not “down to hell” that Christ spread the good news that sin, death and the power of evil had been forever disarmed. God’s right hand (v. 22) was traditionally associated with the highest or seventh heaven, a place, a peace and a posture to which every believer can aspire by virtue of their shared baptismal victory with Jesus.

MARK 1:12-15

Two of the bywords, that dictate the ambiance of Lent, appear in this short text from Christianity’s first gospel . . . reform (or repent) and believe. This is the program for the season; this sets the tenor for the life of the committed disciple of Jesus.

Thomas Smith (Good News About Jesus As Told By Mark, Christian Brothers Publications, Winona MN: 1977) has called verses 14-15 a two-line summary of what any gospel is about and an editorial faith-comment by the evangelist. Mark’s synthesis of Jesus’ person and purpose is simple. Through Jesus, God is among us. Believe that and live accordingly.

Whereas the Revised Common Lectionary and the Episcopal (BCP) include the account of Jesus baptism (vv. 9-11) in their liturgies for today, the Roman Catholic and Lutheran (LBW) lectionaries focus solely on the temptation of Jesus and the inaugural proclamation of the good news.

After his baptism, the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness. Drove is a harsh word, and has been translated elsewhere as thrust. When read in combination with the adverb immediately (v. 12), it becomes clear that the battle between good and evil has already erupted. Jesus, in his baptism, was anointed and empowered with the Spirit. Fully equipped for the task at hand, he is thrust immediately into the fray. Through the period of testing, Jesus’ power is affirmed and, for the rest of his ministry, the struggle between good and evil will be played out for all to see. In the end, his complete victory will be celebrated on the cross; the twin evils of sin and death will meet their ultimate defeat.

Satan, mentioned here (v. 13) for the first time in Mark, simply means adversary. As William Barclay (“Mark”, The Daily Study Bible, St. Andrew Press, Edinburgh: 1975) has explained, the development of the concept of satan is quite interesting. In the Hebrew scriptures, the word was first used of human opponents. The Philistines called David a satan (1 Samuel 29:4); David regarded Abishai as his satan (2 Samuel 19:23); Solomon praised God that he had no satan left to oppose him (1 Kings 5:4). Gradually, satan was used to describe someone who prosecutes a case against another as in Job 1:6-7, or someone who accuses others before God, as in Job 2:2 and Zechariah 3:2.

The other title for satan is devil, from the Greek, diabolos, which means a slanderer. As Barclay further explained, it is only a small step from the notion of one who accuses to one who deliberately and maliciously slanders a person before God. Nevertheless, in the Hebrew scriptures, satan is still an emissary of God and the adversary of humankind.

In the Christian scriptures, however, we find another view of satan, as the one: who is responsible for disease and suffering (Luke 13:16); who seduced Judas (Luke 22:3); who was confronted by the words and works of Jesus (Luke 10:1-19); against whom we must fight (1 Peter 5:8, 9; James 4:7); who is the power against God and is destined for final destruction (Matthew 25:41). This personification of evil as the essence of everything that is against God and the source of all conflict was derived from Persian thought which probably began to influence Hebrew ideas during and after the exile. By the time of Jesus, this concept of satan or the devil had become full blown.

Mark’s reference to Jesus’ being among the wild beasts (v. 13) may point to the danger of the situation; leopards, wild boars, bears and jackals inhabited the Judean desert. But, more probably, the evangelist wished his readers to remember the promises of the messianic age as a time of harmony between humanity and nature (Hosea 2:18, Isaiah 11:6-9). Like the Israelites in their desert trek (Exodus 14:19; 23:20), and like Elijah in the wilderness (1 Kings 19:5-7), angel-messengers from God sustained Jesus (v. 13). But, unlike the Israelites who gave into temptation, complained against God and sinned in the desert, Jesus emerged obedient and faithful to continue the task of proclaiming the reign of God.

Today, we who hear his challenge to reform and believe begin the Lenten process of turning away from self, from evil and sin so as to turn toward God and toward others with renewed faith and fervor.

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Illustration prepared by Julie Lonneman.

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