Watching part of an old movie from the 1950s on
television the other day, I heard one of the characters remark, "Mr.
Anthony doesn't live in my neighborhood."
Almost no one under 60 knows what that comment
means. It refers to a popular TV show of the era - "The Millionaire"
- in which a mysterious "Mr. Anthony" gave strangers
million-dollar checks and observed the results.
To really appreciate some movies, plays and
books, one must even know what TV shows people were watching when the movie,
play or book was created.
In the same way, to understand writings from
the last half of the first Christian century, one must know what books were
popular during that period. The Hebrew Scriptures immediately come to mind.
Almost all Christians were familiar with them.
But another book was also very popular: I
Enoch, an apocalyptic writing concerned with this planet's "last
days." One part describes the rebellious spirits whose successful
tempting of humans had brought about the great flood.
The early Church heard Sunday's first reading
(Genesis 9:8-15) about Yahweh's post-flood covenant with Noah and his
descendants from a different perspective than we do. They regarded this
covenant as a victory over the sinfulness that caused the flood.
That seems to be what the author of I Peter is
speaking about in the second reading (I Peter 3:18-22) when he mentions,
"Jesus 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
These particular "spirits"
represented evil. By having Jesus preach to them, the writer is saying that
Jesus, the force of good, is far superior to the forces of evil.
That reading has been chosen for the First
Sunday of Lent - the ideal preparation period for Baptism - because it's
through Baptism that we participate in Jesus' victory over evil. Comparing
the water of the flood to the water of Baptism, the letter-writer reminds
his readers, "This prefigures Baptism, which saves you now."
Good and evil
The struggle between good and evil is a
frequent theme in early Christian literature, a theme we often miss. In
Sunday's Gospel (Mark 1:12-15), for instance, nothing is mentioned about
something we frequently associate with Lent: fasting.
Jesus spends His 40 days in the desert not
abstaining from food, but being "tempted by Satan." He struggles
not with His human appetite for food, but with His human appetite for evil.
The evangelist tells us that once Jesus, in His
Baptism, discovers the God-given forces that enable Him to defeat Satan, He
immediately shares that insight with His disciples.
"This is the time of fulfillment," He
proclaims. The victory over evil that His fellow Jews had for centuries
longed for was now an essential part of their lives. To take part in this
victory, they simply had to repent: to change their entire value system
enough to recognize God powerfully working among them.
If we're often beaten down by evil in our
lives, maybe we're not repenting enough to change our frame of mind, to
experience a God in our midst who has already conquered the very evil
Though Baptism can't be repeated, the victory
over evil that it effects and symbolizes is a battle in which we can engage
and triumph every day of our lives.