First Sunday of Lent, Year B, February 21, 2021
A group of Jewish priests rewrote an old story, editing it to emphasize the covenant that God wants to keep with the human race. They designate the rainbow as the reminder of that covenant.
For some Christians suffering persecution, the author of 1 Peter offers hope by placing their sufferings in a larger context. That includes the fidelity of God, the similar sufferings of Jesus, the power of the risen Jesus, and our share in that power through baptism.
This short passage gives us the first evangelist's memory of Jesus' first publicly spoken words.
The Theological Background: We trust the reader will concede that this is not a report from an eyewitness just disembarked. It is rather a story told by a sage who has a history of his own and a purpose or two behind his telling. This sage has at heart the interests of an ancient priest.* He wants to remind people of their present covenant with the Lord and reinforce their commitment to it. So he emphasizes covenantal aspects of the ancient story: A very original covenant was almost irrevocably broken by humans' sin. Fortunately God found Noah and his family with whom to renew the covenant. To make this covenant seem even more important, the priestly author places in God's mouth again the same foundational words uttered to Adam and Eve (see Genesis 9:1-7, the verses preceding our Sunday selection). So does the priestly author emphasize that God is committed to the covenant with humanity, so willing to forgive, so ready to grant a new beginning.
Proclaiming It: Before starting the first reading, unless someone has read the boxed introduction above, read this one-sentence explanation to the congregation:
| In this reading, the expression "I set my bow in the clouds"|
means God is making a rainbow appear.
Of course, emphasize the word covenant everywhere in this reading. The merciful renewal of the covenant is what makes this reading appropriate for the beginning of Lent.
And make sure your listeners hear "to Noah and to his sons" in the first sentence. Unless you give an introduction more thorough than the one-liner in the box above, "to Noah and to his sons" is the only early clue that the setting of this reading is the end of the Flood.
Finally, the rainbow image. Can you remember how magical a rainbow seemed, when you saw one as a child? If that's asking you to remember too far back, recall the last time you pointed out a rainbow to a child. For the Lord God, a rainbow is all in a day's work. But an ancient priest, telling this story to a hard-luck people often on the verge of scrapping their covenant, would have wanted the rainbow detail to seem spectacular. He'd want his audience to take the rainbow as an incontrovertible sign** of the finality of God's choice of humankind. You should sound like you want the same.
** In 2006, on the Third Sunday of Ordinary Time, this author's pastor preached about times God had changed His mind, as in the case of Jonah, chapter 3. He said the rainbow was to be interpreted as a cosmic Post-it® note, a reminder to God never to destroy human life again.
The Historical Situation: The original audience of this letter were persecuted Christians. The author, fortunately writing from relative safety, wanted to bolster their faith. To do this, he tries to remind them of their place in a larger history, remind them of God's providence in that history, and help them see their present sufferings in a larger context.
Our Liturgical Setting: It's the beginning of the season that culminates in our solemn remembering of Jesus' suffering, death and resurrection, and the season that culminates in the joyful baptism of our new members, and the season of self-examination. And all the things we pack into Lent are packed into this reading.
Proclaiming It: Say slowly and carefully the sentence, "Put to death in the flesh, he [Christ] was brought to life in the Spirit." Don't rush or you'll make it sound like "Put to death the flesh." Though folks might well expect to hear that on the first Sunday of lent, that's not what Peter is saying.
What of this odd picture of Christ going "to preach to the spirits in prison"? Some scholars say this verse is behind the phrase "He descended into hell" in the Nicene creed. The older New American Bible translation (1970) mercifully divided verses 19-20 into three discrete sentences. And it gives this footnote, beginning with a memorable understatement: "There are various interpretations of this verse. It probably refers to the risen Christ making known to imprisoned souls his victory over sin and death." Our current translation runs together verses 19 and 20, and is the more obscure for it. As a lector, this puts you at fourth and fifteen on your own twenty. (International readers, that's a metaphor from American football, meaning "in a most unfortunate situation.") Sometimes you just have to punt. (Football jargon for "give up and hope for a better chance another time.") God will provide.
But you can speak clearly the much more important water imagery here. Peter says the flood prefigured baptism, which saves you now. Had you ever thought of your baptism when you heard or thought of Noah? Well, now you certainly have. Try to get your listeners to do the same.
An image showing the rainbow sign of God's covenant with Noah. It is from a 13th-century illuminated manuscript of the Compendium historiae in genealogia Christi by Peter of Poitiers. Click here for more about the manuscript in the holdings of the British Library, and click here for a large image.
This page updated February 5, 2021