Six weeks into the Ordinary time season, we’re putting a hold on it to memorialize the events that brought about our redemption, namely, the passion, death and resurrection of Christ. We’re once again given this opportunity to lift our hearts to God on high in the words of an ancient Christian hymn: that in all we do and say, He may keep us free from being harmed by our enemy. But more importantly, we enter into the deepest mystery of the life of Christ. Between now and Easter, we’ll re-live the spectacularly important events that brought about our redemption in Christ, a redemption necessitated by the virus we carry—sin.
Like the leper of last Sunday, we deliberately put on ashes on Ash Wednesday, announcing to all that we have a deadly virus in us—the virus of sin. It took the COVID-19 virus for the world to appreciate the deadly effect of a virus. Soon we went into a lockdown, isolating ourselves from each other; we wore masks, sanitized our hands and spaces to prevent both the spread and the contagion of the dreaded virus. When I traveled in December, I had to carry a “COVID-free certificate” required to board an airplane. We easily acquiesced to the rigorous guidelines of the CDC and health agencies and militantly policed their observances. What occurred to me as I reflected on these was captured by Abbot Lawrence of Shawnee, as he reported a tweet he read days ago, asking: “Why do people fear getting COVID-19 more than they fear going to hell?” This is a worthwhile question for this Lenten season.
This first Sunday, we focus on our covenantal relationship with God. Covenant is a word that has got lost in our language and almost expunged from our lexicon. A few times during wedding ceremonies the word covenant will appear, but I bet that not many couples think of their union as a covenant. For if they knew, understood and appreciated their relationship as covenantal, they certainly would work harder to preserve and protect their union than they currently do. For example, when a man and a woman enter into the covenant of marriage, it isn’t a matter of saying “I do” that quite too often ends in “I don’t,” or exchanging some expensive rings or even sexual relations, it’s rather question of an exchange that touches the core of their being—an exchange of persons. Today, we hear of God’s covenant with Noah, which was but one among the six major covenants that God entered into with His people. In this covenant, God makes all the promises and asks nothing of Noah and his family in return. St. Peter alerts us in the second reading that this covenant prefigured baptism, in which God promised us salvation—free of charge. On our part, we only have to agree to be loved by Him and live as His children. He sends His Son to show us how to live as princes and princesses—cohorts of His eternal kingdom. Several failures in the covenant with God by our ancestors in the faith made God seal an everlasting covenant where the merits of His Son’s death would be the “marker” for the expiation of our sins. Only those who trustingly approach Him by faith will receive this gift.
As He begins the journey toward our salvation, Jesus first confronts our ancient foe—the devil. He knew that that angel of light—Lucifer—still retained, after his fall from grace, the distinguishing intelligence that once made him heaven’s light-bearer. He knew that he would need a long preparation to face the evil one, so that His mission might not be derailed. The temptation of Jesus by the devil shines a light on the pathway for us to discover the tactics of the devil, who definitely would use similar tricks against us. By keeping our gaze on Jesus, we, in the words the hymn referenced earlier, “Would guard our hearts and tongues from strife; from anger’s din would hide our life; from all ill sights would turn our eyes; would close our ears from vanities.” Turning to the absolute value of penitential discipline, the hymn continues: “Would keep our inmost conscience pure; Our souls from folly would secure; Would bid us check the pride of sense, With due and holy abstinence.”
May this Lenten period lift us from the darkness of sin to Christ’s bright glory!
Fr. Chukwudi Jo Okonkwo