Just as Jesus spent forty days in the desert fasting in preparation for the beginning of His earthly ministry, we prepare for the celebration of His passion, death, and resurrection through these forty days of Lent. It seems ironic that the readings given to us during this “desert time” of Lent talk about water and floods, two things you usually won't find in a desert, but these readings bring home the importance of baptism in our lives, making us sharers in Christ's Paschal Mystery which we celebrate at Easter.
The first reading today is one that I think is very familiar for most of us. God has just cleansed the face of the Earth with a massive flood, wiping out every living thing except those which were saved through the Ark of Noah. God sets up a covenant with Noah, promising that he will never again devastate the Earth through a great flood.
For the Israelite people, water was something that was both respected and feared. Water was a necessary element, as it has been throughout all of human history, and was used much as we use it today. It was also greatly feared, especially large bodies of water, like the Mediterranean Sea. They knew the destructive force that water could contain, especially in the flash floods that occurs in many desert climates, and had a healthy fear of large amounts of water.
While they feared the water, they also realized the cleansing power that water contains. They knew how quickly water could remove the dust and grime that came with travel or work in the fields. Ritual baths and washings were important aspects of their worship, nearly as important as the sacrifices themselves. Just as it would clean the dirt off the skin, water was also thought to spiritually cleanse, thus the development of baptism.
St. Peter keys on this cleansing aspect of water in our second reading today. He says that the Great Flood “prefigured baptism, which saves you now.” Through our baptism, we share in saving effects of the Paschal Mystery, the passion, death, and resurrection of Our Lord. No longer is water a force used by God towards destruction of humanity, but is used by Him to save us and renew us. God uses the waters of baptism to destroy the effects of Original Sin, which is passed down from Adam and Eve, and bring us the Sanctifying Grace which we need to enter into the Kingdom of God.
Before Our Lord suffered on the Cross, humanity was closed off from the Kingdom of God. We were suffering from the effects of Original Sin and could not enter into that Kingdom. Those who came before were not automatically condemned, however, as St. Peter tells us that they were waiting “in prison”, also commonly known as the Abode of the Fathers, for the coming of Christ. We say as such when we profess during the Apostles' Creed, “He descended to the dead”. This Abode of the Fathers is not the fiery pit where condemned souls go, but rather a place where those righteous souls resided until Our Lord opened the gates of Heaven through His death and resurrection. These souls have been judged and are now enjoying the rewards of God's presence.
Unlike the time of the Patriarchs and Prophets of Israel, we believe that the Kingdom of God is at hand now, as Our Lord preached. We can enter into that Kingdom now, and do so through our baptism. By the waters of baptism, we die to our sinful nature, and rise again as an adopted child of God. The water cleanses us of our sins, and brings us the Holy Spirit. By the power of the Holy Spirit, we can repent from those sins which we commit and believe in the teachings of Jesus, as we are commanded in the Gospel reading today.
St. Peter reminds us that Jesus “suffered for [our] sins once […] that He might lead you to God.” Through our baptism, we have become followers of Christ. By repenting of our sins and believing in the Gospel, we prepare ourselves for that day when we will see Our Lord face to face in our Heavenly home.