In the early Church, explained Cardinal Jean Danielou, in his study, “The Bible and the Liturgy” (University of Notre Dame Press, $24), “Baptism was usually given during the night before Easter Sunday, but the baptismal ceremonies actually began at the opening of Lent.” It was then, at the start of this great season of reflection, fasting and penance, that the candidates for baptism embarked upon their journey, referred to as “those who are coming into the light.”
Danielou also noted that the “baptismal rites constitute a drama in which the candidate, who up to this time has belonged to the demon, strives to escape his power.” The demon, or Satan, is the adversary who argues and tempts, seeking to keep the candidate from escaping sin and death and entering into the divine life and light of Christ. So strong was this emphasized that the temptations experienced by the candidates were seen as a “participation in the temptation of Christ” in the desert.
These themes are still at the heart of Lent. The journey toward baptism and Easter is the journey from death to life, from darkness to light. The fact of sin is ever with us, even as the gift of forgiveness and purification is ever offered to us.
God saw that the corruption and sinfulness of mankind needed to be addressed in a radical way: “I have decided to put an end to all mortals on earth; the earth is full of lawlessness because of them. So I will destroy them and all life on earth” (Gn 6:13). The destruction required 40 days and nights of rain (Gn 7:4, 12). That number, of course, has deep significance throughout Scripture, often connected with times of trial and punishment. In addition to the 40 days of flooding, there were the 40 years the Israelites spent wandering in the wilderness, brought about by their sin and rebellion (Nm 14:26-35). That was, in turn, the reason Jesus went into the desert for 40 days.
The final goal of the flood, however, was not just the destruction of sin but also the offering of covenantal blessing, as heard in today’s reading from Genesis 9. The covenant is mentioned five times; it would be an ongoing covenant marked by peace between God and creation, and symbolized by the sign of the rainbow. The covenant with Noah, says the Catechism of the Catholic Church, is “everlasting” and “will remain in force as long as the world lasts” (No. 71). How so? First, the covenant “gives expression to the principle of the divine economy toward the ‘nations’” (No. 56); that is, it has a certain “catholic” quality to it, meant for all people. Secondly, as Peter stated in his epistle, the actions of Noah foreshadowed the saving work of Christ: “This prefigured baptism, which saves you now.” And baptism is the means by which we enter into the new and everlasting covenant established by Christ through his life, death and resurrection.
During the flood, sinful men were destroyed by water while the righteous man was saved through those same waters because of his faith in God and his active cooperation with God’s offer of salvation. Those who are baptized are saved through faith and grace, through sacrament and the Holy Spirit. But the Lord’s proclamation still rings in our ears: “Repent, and believe in the Gospel.” We are still in the desert; we are still being tempted; we still journey toward the Kingdom. Lent, then, is a time to recommit ourselves to journey toward the light, fixing our eyes on the Lord who grants life in the full.
Carl E. Olson is the editor of IgnatiusInsight.com.