Offered by Father Matthew Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County, on The First Sunday in Lent, 2018.
Although it is often not the first question we ask, the most important question we can ask of a passage from the Sacred Scriptures, how does it impinge upon our prayer life? How might the passage have a bearing on our relationship with God as that relationship is expressed in the complex of actions both inward and outward that we call prayer? Now I say that is the most important question, but often not the first question we ask. It is the most important question because asking how a passage touches our prayer life—and I mean prayer life both personally and uniquely to each individual and also corporately and shared by the Body as a whole—because the most important thing to Christians is our relationship with God, and the word “prayer” in the widest sense means just that: relationship with God; and relationship with God is lived out through actions, both inward and outward, the question, “How does this passage impinge on our prayer life?” closely corresponds with our actions inward and outward, and it is in our actions inward and outward that our belief in God is really shown. What we say we believe is important, but what is more important is whether we act out what we say we believe.
Yet this is often not the first question we ask. The first question we often ask of a passage from the Sacred Scriptures is “What does this mean?” We seek the plain meaning of the words, and to try to be as precise as we can about this plain meaning. That is often difficult with the Scriptures for a number of reasons, including the fact that we use an English translation of the original scriptural texts, and every translation is an interpretation.
A perfect example is the account in the Book of Genesis of the flood. Before we are able to ask the important question of how this impinges upon our prayer life, we have to ask the first question, what is really going on here? What is remarkable about the Bible is that often that question is answered somewhere else in the Bible, somewhere else in the collection of books that we call the Bible. In the case of the flood, it is answered by Saint Peter in his first Epistle. For us, he teaches authoritatively, the flood has to do with Baptism.
And so to understand properly the passage, we start there. We start, that is, within our understanding of baptism, of how those who are baptized are baptized into the death of Jesus Christ so that we might live in the power of His resurrection. We interpret the flood as having something to do with being incorporated into the Body of Christ, of being cleansed from sin, cleansed from the separation from God we are all born biologically into, as having something to do with forgiveness of sins, as having something to do with being brought into the redemptive stream of grace that flows through participation in the prayer life of the Church.
Saint Peter goes further and says the flood has something to do with an appeal to God for a clear conscience through the resurrection of Jesus. And so immediately we can see correspondence with Lent, which is a time for self-examination and repentance, prayer, fasting and self-denial, and reading and meditating on God’s holy Word. We are invited to do all that not for its own sake but that our conscience can be made clear by God’s grace. We are standing close to the boundless light of Jesus transfigured on the holy mountain. Because we are so close to Him, His light makes our own shadows more focused and distinct.
When we are made aware of our sin, of our shadows, we must see this as a great gift from God’s love. God’s covenant of love established with all people no matter what they do or say is an immoveable rock. He will not destroy us, is His promise made to Noah and his family after the flood. Instead, He wants to make us a new creation as He made the earth a new creation after the flood. This is why He has opened the heavens to us. This is why Jesus went to the desert to face off against Satan, to fight back forever the power of temptation which floods our conscience. Temptation will always flood our conscience, but because of Christ’s victory over Satan in the desert, it has no actual power because by baptism we have been raised to a new life of grace, with God’s multi-colored covenant a permanent sign of our protection, and Jesus’s victory over death through His Passion on the Cross, His Resurrection and Ascension a permanent salvation for all creatures.
God has beaten the Devil. Jesus has won the fight, for all time. Our task is through our prayer life to accept this astonishing gift, to say Yes to God, and to live out this acceptance in our words and deeds, our actions outward in the world and inward in the private room of our soul. Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit. A Spirit that descends upon us like a dove with each Yes we declare against the powerless temptations that besiege us.
Brothers and sisters, let us live out our belief in the Resurrection of Christ and our baptismal incorporation into His Body by committing ourselves again to a holy Lent, to self-examination and repentance, prayer, fasting and self-denial, and reading and meditating on God’s holy Word. Let us bring our awareness of our weaknesses, our faults committed, our sins to God, knowing that when we do through true contrition, we will find our God, because He has already found us, and that we will find Him mighty to save us, because His love for us is beyond measure.
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