Sunday, March 09, 2014

Temptation and Redemption: Sunday—First week in Lent, Cycle A

Gen. 2:7–9, 3:1–7; Rom. 5:12–19; Matt. 4:1–11

Our grandson Nathyn is unusual in his eating habits. He loves just about all of the things most kids dislike at his age: broccoli, green beans, you name it. Most of all, he loves cherry tomatoes. When he was about three, my wife Gina took him shopping with her. He saw that she put cherry tomatoes in the cart. When they got home, he asked if he could have some. Nana—that’s what all the grandchildren call Gina—said that he needed to wait until dinner time. Well, she unpacked the items, putting the cherry tomatoes on the counter in the container. Thinking Nathyn was preoccupied with his toys in the living room, she went to do something in another room. When she came out, he was standing in the hall looking a little guilty. She started to ask him what he was up to and said, “Nathyn?”

He answered, “Nuffing!” He had seeds and reddish goo on his face and clothes, and the package of tomatoes was completely empty. I think that image perfectly parallels this story of the Fall in Genesis. Perhaps the “tree” in the garden was actually a tomato plant.

This week’s readings and psalm tie together and support each other so well and are such a fitting introduction to this Lenten season. First, we have the story of sin’s introduction into the world by the actions of the first man. Then Paul gives us a theological explanation of that calamity and how Jesus undoes it, and in our gospel reading we see how Jesus begins His act of reparation. And in the middle, we have the lament of the sinner who seeks reconciliation with God. Reconciliation is really what this 40-day season is about. In our ordinary daily lives, we tend to fall into a routine, and often that routine involves patterns that are unhealthy, indulgent, and selfish. Those tendencies go back to the very beginning.

In Genesis 2, God breathes life into the nostrils of the man whom He has made from the clay of the ground. The word for man, a DAM’ (or as we say, Adam), comes from the same root as the Hebrew word for the ground or earth surface, A da MAH. So Adam is literally an earthy man—one that comes from the surface of the Earth. God breathes the spirit—the life—into the man made from earth, and then sets him in a garden where he has purpose and freedom to do almost anything he likes. He has all he can eat, no natural predators, and God even makes him a companion, the woman, made out of all Adam’s best qualities: that’s what “bones of my bones and flesh of my flesh” means—woman is made of all the best things in Adam. 

But that’s not enough for our first parents. Adam and the woman want to be God, or at very least, just like God, and they take the only thing in the garden that God withholds from them. How often do we behave the same way: dissatisfied with our many blessings, grasping for more material good, or at very least wanting to make our own rules—our own morality—by remaking God in our own image rather than being content that He has made us in His image?

Paul gives us a glimmer of hope, pointing out that what Adam introduced in the world, Jesus undid and repaired—giving us the way back to life, if we choose it. Through the first man death entered the world; through Jesus, the New Adam, came grace and justification—and new life. The Church has always extended this parallel between Adam and Christ to Eve and the Blessed Mother. The early Church Fathers saw the Blessed Mother as the New Eve who, through her obedience, undoes the disobedience of Eve. 

In Matthew 4, we see the beginning of the reversal. Jesus willingly goes out into the desert: a place of bare subsistence, desolation, and hardship—an area that lacks the cultivation of a garden or a city.  Where the first Adam had all that he could ever need given to Him directly from the Father, the New Adam goes out to where there is nothing. Where our first parents seek more, Jesus goes out to where there is less. He forgoes the rights he has as God, dismisses Satan’s temptation to do for himself: to make bread out of stones, to prove his divinity, or to claim earthly power. That’s really what Satan does here in Matthew: tempts the Lord of the universe with the goods of the earth, the goods that He Himself created.

Jesus’ forty days and nights in the desert are the preparation He undergoes for His earthly ministry. His cross will demand more severity and hardship than the desert can dish out. He will suffer greater spiritual temptations than the mere physical temptations that Satan offers Him. Contrast this with our first parents, who grasp after physical things seeking that which belongs to God. That is a perfect symbol for how many of us live our lives. We seek our fulfillment in the things of the world to the loss of the inheritance we have in God, thinking somehow we will find everlasting fulfillment in the temporary things of this earth. That is just how broken we are because of the sin of our first parents. But even in the story of the Fall, God is already telling us His plan for our redemption: her seed shall bruise the serpent’s head. “Her seed,” of course, is Jesus Himself, and the woman is the Blessed Mother.

At the Easter Vigil, we sing in the Exultet, “Oh happy fault that earned so glorious a redeemer.” Even as Adam and Eve are cowering in their fig-leaf loincloths, probably still a mess with the forbidden fruit they took—like a three-year old who gets into the cherry tomatoes and thinks no one suspects—God is already preparing the remedy for the fall, and He sends us a Savior whom we do not deserve. But with the love of a Father, he does it anyway.

Today we begin our 40 days in the desert. The Church in its wisdom did not arbitrarily set the length of this season of Lent to 40 days but did so specifically to recall the time Jesus spent in the desert. This is a time to set aside the attachments we have to the goods of the earth—a time when we fast, offer prayer, and give alms so that we are better prepared for the spiritual temptations we will encounter throughout the rest of the year. But Lent is also our preparation for the most holy days of our liturgical year and for the remembrance of the Paschal sacrifice that ended the death that our first parents incurred for us. 

We prepare to take up our own cross and to follow the savior who has given everything for us and to us. Oh happy fault that earned for us so glorious and gracious a redeemer.

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