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Commentary to the FIRST SUNDAY OF LENT – YEAR B

Fernando Armellini - Sat, Feb 20th 2021



In mythological stories of ancient peoples, deities wielding their bows ready to shoot arrows at their enemies, often appear. Israel, too, when struck by misfortune, believed that the Lord, outraged because of the sins of his people, had turned his bow against her (Lam 2:4).

It is an archaic image, the legacy of a pagan mentality destined to dissolve with the gradual revelation of the true face of God, who not only holds no weapons to punish but has vowed to reduce to smithereens anyweapons of war (Zech 9:10).

His only bow is deployed in heaven  and it is not a threat, but combines, in a single affectionate hug the sky with the earth, and on the earth, all people. "Look at the rainbow—urged Sirach—and praise the one who made it" (Sir 43:11).

It is the serene image of God's response to people's sin: not a frowning face, but a band of light as sweet as a caress; not a menacing voice, but a welcoming smile, for those who, having forsaken the Lord, have tragically harmed themselves.

The ambivalence of the arc, or the bow, expresses a paradox: the wrath of God is nothing but his smile and his severity coincides with tenderness. His justice is mercy, and from his arc, the rainbow, he does not shoot arrows other than those of love.

To internalize the message, we repeat:

"From my sinful state I look up and I see the rainbow in the sky."


First Reading: Genesis 9: 8-15
       The peoples of Mesopotamia owed their prosperity to the two great rivers, the Tigris and the Euphrates, and yet they feared the waters, sources of life, that often turned into agents of destruction and death. Theycontrolled fire, forged metals, domesticated animals, but they felt powerless in the face of floods and tsunamis.Water, like the bow, is ambivalent: it can be a sign of life as a rainbow, or a weapon that is a symbol of death; it is a gift from heaven and yet is considered a tool of punishment in the hands of divine justice.

In the mythic traditions of the ancient Middle East everywhere they remember the great waters that, in ancient times submerged the earth. Geophysicists assure us that seven or eight thousand years ago, the melting glaciers caused the sea waters to rise a hundred meters, causing deadly disasters everywhere.

From the experience of these catastrophes were born many of the flood myths that have come down to us.The earliest version, written in Sumerian, dates back to the third millennium BCE. They are stories that attempt to explain the meaning of these disasters. They are sapiential reflections that many people have then taken upand reworked, adapting them to their religious concepts. Israel, too, has known these myths and haswelcomed one in the Bible, but after having purified from it all the incompatible elements with their faith. They used it to show how,  in the story of Noah, God hates evil (Gen 6:5-9.28).

he story begins with the dramatic description of evil: "The Lord saw how great was the wickedness of man and that evil was always the only thought of his heart. The Lord regretted having created man on the earth and his heart grieved. He said, “I will destroy man whom I created and blot him out from the face of the earth, as well as the beasts, creeping creatures, and birds, for I am sorry I made them" (Gen 6:5-7). These are phrasesthat leave us bewildered. They are shocking images, among the most forthright of the entire Bible. They haveone goal: to indicate, in the most explicit way, how much God is involved in the history of the world and of man.

In the Mesopotamian myths, the cause of the flood was the wrath of the supreme god, annoyed in hisquiet, by too much noise from the men on earth. In the biblical story instead, the Lord's intervention is determined by the accumulation of violence, "the earth is filled with violence" (Gen 6:13). It was not the evil done to God, but the atrocities committed by people against one another that provoked the wrath of the Lord. It was not the blasphemies against the Lord, but the reciprocal atrocities that made man intolerable in the eyesof God.

A humanity torn apart by hatred, injustice, oppression is incompatible with God's plan; he wants his children living in solidarity and united in love.

At this point, it is not difficult to define the meaning of the story of the universal flood. The sacred authorhas used a myth, very popular in his time, not to teach that God loses his patience and punishes—God has never caused any flood nor any other disaster—but to urge us not to be discouraged in the face of evil  in theworld. Even when wickedness appears to have exceeded all limits, he who has faith in the Lord cultivateshope, knowing that God has decided to create a new humanity, not from the ashes of dead men, but from the rubble of the evil society that they have built.

Today’s reading is the passage that ends the story of the flood and sums up the message. God does not give up in the face of evil. He intervenes to repair and rebuild. He initiates a new humanity to whom hepromises only good things and ensures a blessing: "I establish my covenant with you, and with every living animal with you ... never again will life be cut off by the waters of a flood" (vv. 9-11).

Take note: he swears not to punish people  on the condition that they stop committing sins and behave well. He promises without asking anything in return; he commits himself to bless always and in every situation.His love is completely free.

This is the consoling message that the Bible launches, from its earliest chapters. God does not wait forpeople to become good to be generous with them. He takes a person as he or she is and, with his love, transforms them into a new creature.

The passage ends with the image of the rainbow, the symbol of the first covenant made by God; a further covenant with Abraham will be made and will have circumcision as its sign.

Noah was neither Jewish nor Christian nor Muslim; "he was a just man, blameless among the people of his time, a man who walked with God" (Gen 6:9). He was the founder of the new humanity which knew nodiscrimination of races, peoples, and religions. With this humanity, God made a covenant, promising salvationto all unconditionally.

This is the first manifestation of God’s universal saving will; later it is  explicitly affirmed in the New Testament: "God wants all to be saved and come to the knowledge of truth" (1 Tim 2:4).

We expected perhaps, as the First Reading of Lent, a text that exhorts us to fasting, penance, andmortification. Instead, the liturgy invites us to rejoice, proposing the comforting promise of God that thewickedness of man will never frustrate his loving plans for his children.

Second Reading: 1 Peter 3:18-22

In this reading, Peter picks up the story of the flood and uses it to explain to the Christians of his time the effects of baptism. Noah was saved from the flood waters by means of the ark that God told him to build, and with him his family and the animals were also saved, so that creation, freed from sin, could start over.

The water of baptism has the same effect: it destroys the old man and gives birth to a new man; it marks the end of sin, of corrupt life, and gives birth to a new life in the Spirit.

This renewal is possible because Christ, the Righteous One, died for sins once for all. He communicatesthe Spirit of Life to the Church, and it is He who gives the waters of baptism the power to destroy sin and deathand to restore believers to new life.

Gospel: Mark 1:12-15

Every year, on the First Sunday of Lent, the Gospel is about the temptations of Jesus in the desert. Mark refers to them very briefly and uses two verses (vv. 12-13) to explain them. With just these few lines, some preachers struggle to outline their homily. They then make use of the three temptations reported by Matthew and Luke. It is better to avoid resorting to this defective expedient and limit oneself to the text of Mark, which is already quite rich.

We note: It is the Spirit who, after coming down on Jesus like a dove (Mk 1:10), leads him into the wilderness.

If "to tempt" is tantamount to "incite to evil," the Spirit does not do that. In the Lord's Prayer, in fact, we ask God "lead us not into temptation." Yet, in the Bible, we read that God puts to the test people acceptable to him, not the wicked (Sir 2:5). There are temptations that are not an incitement to evil. These are the situations thatthe righteous person has to face. These are the times when one is forced to make choices that are healthy opportunities to make faith stronger and steadfast..

Those who want to grow, improve, purify, strengthen their commitment to God cannot be spared from these tests. Not even Jesus was spared and this brings him close to us, placing him on our side because he too "was tempted in every way just as we are, yet without sinning" (Heb 4:15).

Why does the evangelist place the trial of Jesus in the desert? What is this place? There is no doubt that Jesus, like John the Baptist and many ascetics of his time, must have spent a period of his life in solitude,meditating and praying in some cave in the barren and desolate region that extends near the Dead Sea. So we ask: Did Mark want to restrict the time when Jesus was tempted, reducing it to the duration of this shortexperience?

It is not possible: this contradicts the statement quoted from the Letter to the Hebrews and renders Jesus a stranger, one who is exempted from our difficulties, as one who enjoyed special privileges and who was only superficially grazed—or perhaps not—by anxieties and doubts that instead burden us throughout life. This kind of Jesus would not interest us any longer.

The number ‘forty’ clarifies, unequivocally, the intention of the evangelist. In biblical symbolism, it indicatesa whole generation, with particular reference to the ones who crossed the desert, were tempted and died in the wilderness. The whole life of Jesus is thus captured in these forty days in the wilderness. All throughout hislife, he was subjected to the test. He entered into the desert immediately after receiving baptism from John. He started his exodus, waged war against Satan, a tough fight that lasted until the moment in which, victorious, he came out of the desert, at the time of his death.


Who is Satan, this character that appears next to him?

The Hebrew word Satan is not a personal name, but a common name. It indicates one who sets himself against, who places himself in front as an adversary and accuser. It was envisioned, at the time of Jesus, asan evil spirit, the enemy of the good of man, the destroyer of God’s work. In our passage, he is the personification of all the forces of evil against which Christ fought during the "forty days" of his short life on earth.

He presents himself again today, this antagonist of God and man, in the impulses of hatred, resentment, selfishness, greed to possess, the desire to dominate, the unruly passions that produce corruption and death.These are the Satan against which everyone, as Jesus did, is called to confront, not with practices ofexorcism, but with the power of the Holy Spirit who acts in the word of the Gospel and the sacraments. It is through this inner struggle that we are offered the opportunity to mature and grow "thus we become the perfect Man, upon reaching maturity and sharing the fullness of Christ" (Eph 4:13).

In his account, from its clearly symbolic language, the evangelist introduces two other characters: the wild animals, and the angels—it should be kept in mind—they do not come into play to serve Jesus at the end of the forty days. They are by his side throughout his stay in the desert. Who do they represent?

Many believe that speaking of wild animals becoming tame, Mark refers to the heavenly state, when Adam assigned animals their names and lived with them in perfect harmony (Gen 2:19-20). With the beginning of his public life, Jesus would begin to establish universal peace in the world and new relationships with nature andwith animals.

More than to the book of Genesis, I believe that the Evangelist is alluding to a memorable page in the bookof Daniel (Dan 7) where the wild animals are oppressive world powers: the bloody Babylonian empire is represented by the lion, that of the Medes by a bear, that of the Persian a leopard, the one of Alexander the Great and the Diadochi, his successors, a fourth beast, undefined but fearsome and terrible. Instead of servingthe people and establishing peace and justice, these realms oppressed the weak, tyrannizing and enslavingwhole nations for centuries.

If this is, as I believe, the reference intended by Mark, then the wild animals Jesus confronted during his lifetime are the rulers of this world. These included those holding political, economic, and religious power such as the Sadducees, the Sanhedrin, the high priests, and spiritual leaders  like the scribes who "made a show of long prayers," but "devoured the widows' goods" (Mk 12:40). They are the Pharisees who preached God as an executioner and an enemy of sinners.

Jesus struggled to defend people, to rescue them from the clutches of institutions which, instead of serving people, tyrannized them.

The Evangelist is warning his disciples that they will have  to deal  with the same beasts: the economic powers that take advantage of and force  entire populations to live in misery; foolish ideologies which lead them to  the folly of fanaticism, religious fundamentalism and racism.

Even the angels, like the wild animals, are identified on the basis of biblical references. The term angeldoes not necessarily mean a spiritual being, as is generally imagined. It means every mediator of God's salvation and is applied to anyone who becomes a tool in the hands of the Lord on behalf of humanity. Moseswho led Israel in the wilderness is called "angel" (Ex 23:20-23), John the Baptist is presented by Mark as an "angel" (Mk 1:2). Angels of the Lord are those who cooperate with God's plan, who are committed to taking forward the new world begun by Christ.

"During his forty days" Jesus met wild animals, but also many angels on his way. Angels who took care of him were certainly his parents, women who assisted him during his public life, those who shared the valuesproposed by him and the choices he made, those who stayed at his side—"serving" him—collaborating in his work of salvation.

There are many, even today, angels who, in His providence, the Lord makes appear, especially in the darkest hours, beside each of his disciples.

One who can restore peace to the life of a couple, who can comfort the downcast, who points out the waysof the Lord, who communicates joy and infuses hope, is an angel. There is, however, even for the disciple, the danger of becoming, perhaps in good faith, a Satan, a wild animal. It happened to Peter when he abandonedfollowing Christ, he wanted to precede the master to teach him the way (Mk 8:33). It can happen to us if, forgetful of gospel principles, we adapt to the "magisterium" of this world that preaches violence, abuse,hedonism, and refusal of sacrifice.

In the second part of the passage, Mark at first specifies the place where Jesus started his proclamation, Galilee. Then he offers a synthesis of his message: "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand;Repent and believe the Gospel" (vv. 14-15).

The site chosen to inaugurate the mission has a theological meaning. Jesus did not stay in the desertwhere the Baptist did his work. He did not expect the people to look for him. He let each one remain in his house and in his room. He himself moved to meet anyone who needed his understanding and his help.

He did not go directly to Jerusalem, the religious capital where the pure Jews lived, where the Temple priests so impeccably performed their liturgies. He turned to the most despised region, the Galilee of the Gentiles. Along the banks of the lake, he found fishermen mending their nets, near the customs house inCapernaum he saw Levi sitting at the tax office and called him. He entered the homes of tax collectors wheresinners were waiting for him. He sat at table with them. He had a message of joy from the Lord for all the outcasts: the time of preparation has ended, the new era of history has started, and the Kingdom of God is  “close at hand”.

The Kingdom of God. How many emotions this expression aroused in the Israelites! For the majority of people, it pointed to the restoration of the Davidic monarchy and the coming of the Messiah to defeat andhumiliate the pagan nations. For the Pharisees, it was the time when everyone would observe faithfully the provisions of the law. There were others who were holders of political, religious and above all economic power; they did not want any new kingdom and preferred to perpetuate the existing one.

By announcing the nearness of the Kingdom of God, Jesus awakened in the hearts of many the ancient, dormant hopes; in others the distrust and open hostility of those in power. He envisioned a radically new society, based on principles opposed to those which, until then, had characterized the relations betweenpeople. It is no longer domination, but service; not the selfish hoarding of goods, the pursuit of self-interest and the race to the top, but the choice to share everything so that no one would be poor; not revenge and theimplacable justice of people, but forgiveness and unconditional love for the enemy.

Was it the illusion of a dreamer? No, it is a concrete proposal, though apparently not viable, because  we are accustomed to instinctively  seek our own advantage. "Believe in the Gospel"—Jesus recommended—trust the good news, welcome the proposal of God and the kingdom of heaven that is "close at hand." It will be yours and will become the most intimate part of your being. It's not an unattainable utopia, it is possible, indeed, the new has already risen, as St Paul says, “the one who is in Christ is a new Creature” (2 Cor 5:17).

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