This is the reason Christ died for sins once for all, a just man for the sake of the unjust, so that He could lead you to God.
– Pet. 3:18
For Christians, the Season of Lent is a special time of grace which enables us to repent, to undergo a deeper conversion, to fulfill the command of the Lord we just heard in the Gospel: This is the time of fulfillment … reform your lives and believe in the Gospel. With the coming of Jesus, this is indeed the time of fulfillment, the fulfillment of the promises made by God to rescue us from our self-destructive behavior. Jesus is the fulfillment, our redeemer, and his grace is our salvation. And the core preaching of Jesus is just that basic: we are to repent of our sins and believe in His Gospel. But what does it mean to believe in His Gospel? It surely means that we must submit our souls, our lives, to the work Jesus has accomplished on our behalf and then base our lives on the truth that Jesus teaches us.
In the second reading, St. Peter specifies the essentials of our faith, what essentially we are to believe in: that the just man, Jesus Christ has died for the unjust, us, in order that we might be saved and be led to God by Jesus, the only-begotten Son of God. By his death in the flesh he died for our sins, and by His resurrection he became, in the flesh, the source of of eternal life which was the source of his Resurrection. We receive that life if we put our faith in the saving death of Jesus, his sacrifice on our behalf. In faith in Jesus, we escape the death of the soul, just as Noah and his family escaped the death of the flesh by the faith of Noah.
In the days of Noah, only eight persons put their faith in God’s word and escaped the flood. The rest of men scoffed at Noah’s warning and were drowned in the great flood that overwhelemed the earth. This is for us a parable to help us understand the fate of those who believe in the Gospel, as contrasted with the fate of those who refuse to enter the ark of the New Covenant. Those who repent and believe in the saving word and deeds of Jesus Christ will be saved by the Cross which like the wooden ark of Noah, carries them on the waters of Baptism to a new life in God.
On the other hand, those who deliberately refuse to repent and believe in the Gospel will be like those men of old who stayed outside the ark, and were lost. The ark of Noah, then, is truly a prefiguring image of the Cross of Jesus; the flood is a prefiguring of the Sacrament of Baptism; and, finally, the new life of Noah and his family a prefiguring of the new life that comes to us through Baptism, the new life of Divine Grace, the supernatural life of divine sonship in the Lord.
For Christians, the Old Testament is God’s revelation, but it is to be understood as a foreshadowing of the New Covenant. Thus events like Noah’s ark remain significant for us simply because they are divinely intended as images of the realities that will be brought about by the Lord in the New and Eternal Covenant. As St. Peter says, the baptismal bath, which corresponds to the flood exactly, contains not merely a physical effect, the preservation of man’s earthly life. Or the purification of his body as in the baptisms of the old rituals of Israel or surrounding nations.
The effect of Baptism goes far beyond merely preserving physical life and beyond the purification of any ritual bath of the old religions. Baptism causes us, says St. Peter, to have an irreproachable conscience, and it does so by washing away our sins in the blood of Jesus. The Sacrament, in other words, causes a true interior transformation in our souls, cleansing them from all stain of sin so that we can stand before God as His true children, sharing His life, and pledging our fealty with an irreproachable conscience.
So Jesus begins his Mission by calling mankind to repentance of sin, and to belief in the Good News, that by His death and resurrection, we receive the gift of salvation, the forgiveness of all our sins, and the regeneration of our natures in Baptism which transforms us into God’s children and gives us a new, irreproachable conscience. This is the gift Jesus offers to all, but to gain it each of must do two things to begin with, repent for the sins we have committed and believe in the Gospel he proclaims. This the heart of the Gospel. He has died for us, and by his death he has merited the forgiveness of our sins. By his resurrection, he has become for us the source of eternal life and restored goodness to our consciences by making them irreproachable before God.
But, if it is necessary for the unbaptized to repent and believe in the Gospel, how much more necessary is it for the baptized who have lost that irreproachable conscience they received in Baptism by falling back into the slavery of sin. Because we have been baptized does not mean that we ever, in this world, escape the necessity of responding to this call of Jesus to repent and believe. Who among us can say we have never betrayed our Baptismal gift from Jesus, our irreproachable conscience, by some form of sin? Even venial sin compromises the irreproachableness of our conscience, while mortal sin destroys the very life of Grace in our souls. And we stand before the Lord with even greater responsibility for having betrayed the free gift of His death, and always in danger of betraying it in the future. His call to reform our lives should strike our consciences even more since we have been privileged to receive his gifts in Baptism, and have not remained true to our promises.
How merciful God is to continue to address these words calling us to repentance every year, every day. For we are not only sinners, but sinners who have betrayed our first troth! Yet how unlike us is the father of Mercies, who continues to offer us the possibility of reform, though we may have betrayed him so often. Think of how unforgiving we can be. Suppose you had a son who had sacrificed his life for someone who was really a ne’er-do-well, and then, that man, having pledged himself to be a better man in the future to honor your son, wasted his new life again and again, in little ways and often in grave ways. How often would we hold out the offer of our forgiveness?
Some might ask, does God never stop offering these words of mercy? And the answer is simple from God’s side: so long as the Church proclaims this Gospel, the offer of God’s mercy will be made to those who hear it and take it to heart. On Ash Wednesday, the Church calls us to repentance. Each and every morning the Church begins her daily prayer with the words, If today you hear his voice harden not your hearts. The only question is do we choose to hear his appeal to repentance with an open heart, or are we like the neighbors of Noah, who heard the warning, but did not take it seriously and never entered the Ark. The choice is ours. God is always merciful; the real question is are we always repentant?