First Sunday in Lent

Episcopal Parish of AltonMark 1:9-13, Genesis 9:8-17, I Peter 3:18-22

(Acknowledgements: Aidan Kavanagh, A Rite of Passage, and Anne Field, From Darkness to Light: How One Became a Christian in the Early Church)

Let’s take a trip—a trip not only to a different place, but to a different time. It’s the fourth century A.D., and you live in the Roman Empire. Three years ago, you came to a decision in your own heart that you wanted to become a Christian. When your parents were young, that decision could have meant imminent torture and death for you. Fortunately, that’s no longer the case, but, as you are about to find out, it will still “cost you your life,” in a very real sense. You made your decision because the family next door is Christian. You noticed a hard-to-describe quality about them—peace, authenticity, humility, consistent kindness—and when you told them how impressed you were by this quality, they told you about Jesus and what he meant to them. Eventually, you accompanied them to a gathering on Sunday mornings. They sang songs of praise to Christ, read passages of scripture, and heard the priest explain and amplify on what had been read. But, after the sermon, you and other inquirers were politely asked to leave, while the rest stayed for quite a while longer. When you asked what went on during that time, all you got were smiles and vagueness, never a straight answer.

Then, when you finally got up the nerve to acknowledge that you, too, believed in Jesus, and wanted to hang out with those who were his followers, at first you thought they were trying to talk you out of it! The leaders of the Christian community peppered you with questions about your lifestyle, and your neighbors had to vouch for you. You heard about some others who were told they had to quit their jobs and find new ones before they could become Christians. But, after an impressive ceremony where you wrote your name in a special book, you officially became a catechumen. That meant that, on Sunday mornings, after the sermon, when you were dismissed, you and other catechumens were taken to a special place with your catechists to further discuss the scripture readings of the day and the sermon. In the meantime, they continued to watch you very closely, to make sure you lived a life that was consistent with Christian teaching.

That went on for more than two-and-a-half years. Now you’re on the final leg of your journey. It’s the beginning of Lent, and when Easter arrives, you’re going to be baptized. For this Lenten season before your baptism, you’ve literally had to move from your own home in a small town into the major city of your region, where the bishop and his cathedral are located. Some members of the cathedral community are supplying you with lodging. Every morning, you and the other catechumens will be instructed personally by the bishop. You will also spend a lot of time meeting with your catechists, and in personal prayer.

Beyond that, you know very little about what’s going to be happening to you. For the first time, you will hear the words of the Apostle’s Creed and the Lord’s Prayer. You will be instructed as to their meaning, and required to commit them to memory. About halfway through Lent, you will be very seriously prayed over by the Bishop, who will exorcise you of any lingering influence from Satan that you have brought with you from your pre-Christian way of life. You will be anointed with oil as an outward sign of this exorcism. On the eve of Easter, you and the other catechumens will be led into a magnificent room and told to take off all your clothes. You will face toward the west, and renounce all forms of evil—cosmic evil, social and political evil, and personal evil. Then you will face toward the east, and proclaim your acceptance of Jesus Christ as your Savior and promise to follow and obey him as your Lord. Next, you will be directed into a large pool of flowing water. The bishop will ask you once more to affirm your faith in the words of the creed, as a deacon dunks you in the water three times. When you come out of the pool, another deacon will greet you with a warm white baptismal garment as a sign that, as St Paul said, those who have been baptized into Christ have “been clothed with Christ.” You will also be given a burning terracotta oil lamp.

When all the baptisms have been completed, you will be led into the church, where the whole Christian community has been keeping vigil all night, waiting for this very moment. To them, you represent the living Christ himself; you are a walking icon of Jesus raised from the dead. For the first time, you will get to stay in church after the sermon! For the first time, you will take part in the Prayers of the People. For the first time, you will exchange the Sign of Peace with your Christian brothers and sisters. For the first time, you will “lift up your heart” as the bishop invokes the Holy Spirit to infuse the gifts of bread and wine with the body and blood of Christ. And for the first time, you will dine on that precious food. After a day of feasting, and a good night’s sleep, you will finally get to go home—not to resume your normal life, but to begin a new life in the same place.

Not too many decades after that fourth century scene that I’ve just described, it became not only legal, but fashionable, to be a Christian. The process leading to baptism was, shall we say, significantly relaxed from the earlier norm. Western society entered an era in which the church and culture were united with one another like a hand in a glove. Baptism was routine; the society was pervasively Christian. I think it’s safe to say that we’ve are presently witnessing the unraveling of that alliance between church and society, but we certainly still live in its afterglow. As a result, we are likely to be shocked, maybe even scandalized, by the baptismal discipline that existed in the first three or four centuries of Christianity. We are conditioned to look at baptism as an essentially private event—a quaint and vaguely symbolic cultural ritual that provides parents an opportunity to “go public” with their new baby. I suspect there are those here who can remember when it would have been unremarkable to receive an invitation to a “christening” that would be held in the “drawing room” of a fashionable home. After a very brief ceremony, during which only a minimal amount of water would moisten the baby’s forehead, the family and a few invited guests would retire to the garden for a genteel party, with champagne punch and finger sandwiches. All very refined, all very harmless.

In truth, however, there is nothing either harmless or refined about the sacrament of Christian baptism. It is the most profoundly important event any of us will ever experience, and there isn’t even a close second. Baptism is a drowning—a death. Baptism is a bath—a cleansing. Baptism is birth—the font is the womb of the Church, and the water in it is amniotic fluid, through which new Christians are born again by water and the Holy Spirit. The primary purpose of Lent is still to serve as the final run-up to the celebration of baptism at the Great Vigil of Easter. By saying that, I do not intend to demean the traditional Lenten disciplines—self-examination and confession, prayer, fasting, self-denial, reading and meditating on God’s holy word. But we must never forget the context in which those disciplines occur. It is a baptismal context.

It is an established part of the church’s lectionary that, on the first Sunday in Lent, we read the account of our Lord’s wilderness temptation. This being Year ‘B’ of our three-year cycle, we have St Mark’s version to deal with. It is certainly the leanest of the three gospel narratives that speak of this episode. There’s no dialogue with Satan; in fact, the familiar temptations that we know so well are not even mentioned. So, we need to look at Mark’s account of Jesus’ wilderness temptation, as it were, out of our peripheral vision. When we do so, we get a glance at what took place just before the desert retreat, which was—you guessed it—Jesus’ baptism. To tell you the truth, Mark doesn’t waste very many words on this event, either. But we also have the Old Testament reading from Genesis, about the covenant that God established with Noah. God had used water, not only to destroy most of the world, but also as the means through which a remnant of human and animal life was saved. Noah’s ark, then, prefigures Christian baptism. The covenant with Noah, represented by the rainbow, prefigures the baptismal covenant. I’m not just dreaming this up, by the way. It’s the way St Peter explained it in his first epistle, which we also read today.

The sidelong reference to the baptism of Christ, combined with the Lord’s covenant with Noah as interpreted by Peter, serves to remind us of the overwhelming significance of baptism. Unfortunately, because of the minimalist way many of us have experienced baptism, it’s difficult for us to fully grasp this point. Is it not ironic that, without meaning to, we look at ordination the way the earliest Christians looked at baptism, and we look at baptism the way they looked at ordination? Think about it. In the ancient church, potential baptismal candidates were carefully screened as to their manner of life—much like aspirants to ordination are today. The ancient catechumenate lasted three years—about the same length of time a candidate for ordination spends in seminary. In the early church, baptism was celebrated with all the festive pomp and circumstance the community could muster, which is exactly what we do today when someone is ordained deacon, priest, or bishop. In the ancient church, ordinands were chosen seriously, but quickly, and the actual ordination took place within a very short period following election—not too differently from the way people get baptized today. On the wall of my study are my ordination certificates, all three elegantly framed. When I was made a deacon, in the Diocese of Oregon, a talented calligrapher personally prepared my certificate, and it is a thing of beauty. The certificate I received when I was ordained a bishop is large and bears the wax seals of the other bishops present. As for my baptismal certificate—I don’t even know for sure that there ever was one; I certainly haven’t seen it. It should be the other away around. All of us should have our baptismal certificates beautifully framed and prominently displayed, so that we are constantly reminded that we have clothed ourselves with Christ, that we are sealed with the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever.

Even if we don’t actually go home and do this—though I hope some of you might!—we can at least use this realization to begin Lent with the “end” in mind—in other words, to begin Lent already thinking about the renewal of our baptismal vows at the Easter Vigil. This will enable us to approach the paschal feast in a prepared state, to celebrate the resurrection of Christ with genuine joy. But it will do more than that. The one detail that St Mark includes about Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, a detail that Matthew and Luke omit, is this: “…and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered to him.” Jesus was in a wilderness—dangerous territory—but he was not alone. His needs were met, and he was kept safe. He had victory over every evil. Our baptismal identity—our having been clothed with Christ—gives us that same blanket of protection in the wilderness, whether that wilderness is merely Lent, or life itself.


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