Sunday, February 22, 2015

First Sunday in Lent 2015: Spring Cleaning the Conscience

First Reading: Genesis 9:8-15
Psalm 25:4-6,7-9
Second Reading: 1 Peter 3:18-22
Gospel: Mark 1:12-15

In the first reading, God makes a covenant with every mortal being on earth through Noah: “Never again shall all creatures be destroyed by the waters of a flood.” (Genesis 9:11) In the second reading, St. Peter tells us this flood “prefigured” the sacrament of Baptism, “not as a cleansing of dirt from the body, but as an eperōtēma of a good conscience to God, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” (1 Peter 3:21)

The meaning of eperōtēma is uncertain. The Vulgate, following St. Jerome, translates it as interrogatio — a question, an interrogation, a cross-examination, perhaps even an argument or syllogism. The New American Bible, Revised Edition notes that it could also be rendered as pledge; “that is, a promise on the part of Christians to live with a good conscience before God, or a pledge from God of forgiveness and therefore a good conscience for us.” And Thayer’s Lexicon argues that “As the terms of inquiry and demand often include the idea of desire, the word thus gets the signification of earnest seeking, i.e. a craving, an intense desire ….

So what did St. Peter mean by calling Baptism an eperōtēma? It helps us to step backwards, not only in the epistle, but also in Genesis.


The story of Noah begins in Chapter 6, with the intercourse between the “sons of God” and the “daughters of men”. The “sons of God” were most likely the descendants of Seth, while the “daughters of man” were descendants of Cain. The Hebrew and Aramaic words for son were often used figuratively, as in the nickname Jesus gave to the sons of Zebedee: sons of thunder. (Mark 3:17) Thus, we need not infer any couplings between humans and angels, who “neither marry nor are given in marriage” (Matthew 22:30).

More to the point, the “sons of God” were men who had begun to “call upon the name of the Lord”, from the time of Seth’s son Enosh (Genesis 4:25-26). While chapter 5 gives the lineage of Noah’s father, Lamech, from Seth, chapter 4 has Lamech descend from Cain, and boast that he has killed men for slight causes: “If Cain is avenged seven times, then Lamech seventy-seven times.” (vv. 23-24).

Chapter 6 speaks of the offspring of these unions as Nephilim, possibly “the fallen (ones)”. The Septuagint translates Nephilim as gigantēs, “giants”, which had also appeared in Greco-Roman tales and have cognates elsewhere in the world; giants appear elsewhere in the Old Testament. However, it’s likely that their monstrosity wasn’t physical so much as it was moral:

When the Lord saw how great the wickedness of human beings was on earth, and how every desire that their heart conceived was always nothing but evil, the Lord regretted making human beings on the earth, and his heart was grieved. … [T]he earth was corrupt in the view of God and full of lawlessness. (Genesis 6:5-6,11)

“But Noah found favor with the Lord. … Noah was a righteous man and blameless in his generation; Noah walked with God.” (vv. 8-9) Charis, “favor; grace”, is derived from chairō, “to rejoice; to be well”, which is also the root of the verb charitoō (make graceful; pursue with grace; honor with blessing); the perfect passive of charitoō is kecharitōmenē:Chaire [imperative of chairō], kecharitōmenē, the Lord is with you! … Do not be afraid, for you have found charin [charis as direct object] with God.” (Luke 1:28,30)

Turning now to St. Peter:

Put to death in the flesh, [Jesus] was brought to life in the spirit. In it he also went to preach to the spirits in prison, who had once been disobedient while God patiently waited in the days of Noah during the building of the ark, in which a few persons, eight in all, were saved through water. (1 Peter 3:18-20; emphasis mine)

We hold, as part of the Apostle’s Creed, that Jesus “descended into Hell” (descendit ad inferos); St. Paul, referring to Psalms 68:18, asks the Ephesians, “In saying, ‘He ascended,’ what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth [i.e., Sheol, or Hades]?” (Ephesians 4:9) But St. Peter gives the audience a specificity St. Paul doesn’t — not to contradict him or to limit Christ’s actual work in Hell, but to tie the water of Baptism with the water of the Flood.

In Noah and the ark, we have a prefigure of Mary, gratia plena, who, having found favor with the Lord, constructed the Ark of Salvation in her body, to carry all that is good out of the wreckage of sin and death into new life. The Ark of Salvation is also that Ark which carries the new covenant and the new law, the law written on hearts (cf. Romans 2:14-15) which commands us, “As I have loved you, so you also should love one another” (John 13:34); and “Do to others whatever you would have them do to you” (Matthew 7:12; cf. Luke 6:31).

And that which both destroys sin and carries the cleansed conscience to salvation is the water of Baptism. The psalmist reminds us of God’s faithfulness; God “shows sinners the way”, and “guides the humble in righteousness”. (Psalm 25:8-9) Time and again throughout the Scriptures, God promises his steadfast love to those who keep his commandments (e.g., Exodus 20:6; Deuteronomy 7:9; Nehemiah 1:5; John 14:21).

In this, there is an implicit quid pro quo: only those who are willing to follow can be led; God can only guide those who suffer themselves to be guided. This requires us to confess our sins, to repent of them, and to submit ourselves to correction. We must first take ownership of our faults, so Christ can take them from us.

Saint Peter has instructed us to keep our consciences clear, “so that, when you are abused, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing right, if that should be God’s will, than for doing wrong.” (1 Peter 3:16-17). When we keep our consciences clear, the indelible mark of Baptism acts as a supplication and challenge (eperōtēma) to God to remember His promise. There is no sin in such a challenge; we make such a similar challenge whenever we pray, as instructed by Our Lord, “Forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us” (Luke 11:4) It’s also His promise that, if we confess and repent of our sins, He will remember them no more — He will cleanse our consciences Himself.

Saint Peter reminds us that, if we suffer for righteousness’ sake, we should remember that Jesus also suffered and was tempted, “the righteous for the sake of the unrighteous, that he might lead you to God.” (1 Peter 3:18) Jesus came through his temptations, through his suffering, through his death. He challenges us now to repent, and believe the good news, the news of our salvation.

Lent is the spring cleaning of the soul.