Failing Faithful Need
The danger of Lent is that we will end the season overconfident. Whether we are the elect preparing for baptism or the faithful striving again to overcome sin, we spend this season in spring training. We work on some skills. We watch our diet. We train hard at prayer. We become better Christians, and we have reason to celebrate when Easter gets here. But if we are overconfident, if we do not continue to work on the skills of the spiritual life, we may fail again.
Paul tells the Corinthians next Sunday (1 Corinthians 10:1-6, 10-12) to beware of overconfidence in the spiritual life. They may be baptized, but their problems are not over. [You will hear this text as the second reading unless your community celebrates the first scrutiny of the elect, in which case, all the readings will be drawn from Year A of the lectionary cycle.]
Paul compares the situation of new Christians to that of the Israelites at the time of the Exodus from Egypt. In fact, one reason we hear this passage next Sunday is its allusion to Moses. Moses appears in the first reading every year on the Third Sunday of Lent. Paul notes that the Israelites faltered in faith after crossing the sea to freedom. The same could happen to Christians after crossing the baptismal waters of freedom.
Several images drive the point home. Paul says the Israelites were "baptized into Moses." The Jewish scriptures never used such a phrase. Earlier in this same letter, though, Paul complained about the splintering of the Christian community into factions, apparently based on who was baptized by whom (cf. 1 Cor 1:10-17). For Paul, there is baptism into Christ, but not baptism into a minister. Similarly, he proposes that the Exodus accomplished a baptism into Moses -- not as minister, but as the figure into whose community this people was formed.
This "baptism" came through cloud and sea. Paul recalls that a pillar of cloud led Israel through the great sea that swallowed up the enemy. The Holy Spirit leads people like a cloud through the waters of baptism, destroying the forces of evil that keep them from Christ.
Paul also refers to Israelís desert food and drink. He calls manna and water from the rock "spiritual food and drink," making it easier for the Corinthians to see the parallel to the Eucharist. The baptized share the eucharistic food and drink that sustains them through their journey in the desert of this world toward the promised land of heaven.
Paul also speaks of the rock that gave the Israelites their water. But he calls it the "rock that followed them." An old tradition held that the water-giving rock actually followed Israel through the desert. The story of the rock appears twice in the Torah, in Exodus 17:1-7 and again in Numbers 20:7-12. (A similar invocation for water to spring forth appears in Numbers 21:17.) However, the two versions of this story differ in one detail. The first one takes place at Rephidim and the second at Kadesh. Today, we would argue that different versions of the same story were handed down, and two variations found their way into the Bible. But some in the past assumed that both versions had to be true, and the rock actually traveled with Israel from Rephidim to Kadesh. The Torah never says the rock traveled, but Paul seems to have learned this when he wrote of the rock that followed.
Then Paul says, "the rock was the Christ." This puzzling expression either means that this traveling rock contained the eternal presence of Christ, or that it foreshadowed the role Christ would play, remaining with Christians on our journey of faith, providing living water through the scriptures and sacraments. This verse appears in Latin on the altar of the Sisters of the Assumption in Paris: "Petra autem erat Christus." The altar symbolizes Christ, the rock, the source of life in the desert.
Finally, Paul reminds the Corinthians that after their ancestors were baptized into Moses, they still had problems. They sinned, and God became displeased. Overconfident, they failed the covenant. Paul did not want the same to happen to Corinth.
Nor should it happen to us. Lent will help us overcome our failures, but it will also remind us of our inclination to fail. If we progress in the spiritual life this season, we will never completely overcome our inclination toward sin. But being aware of it in all seasons is a step toward grace.