Wednesday, March 1, 2017

MAN'S FALL


March 5th, 2017: First Sunday in Lent, Year A.
Gen. 2:7-9. 3:1-7; Rom. 5:12-19; Mt. 4:1-11.

AIM: To explain sin’s roots and consequences, and the meaning of redemption in personal life. 

          “Now the serpent was the most cunning of all the animals that the Lord God had made.” Not only cunning, we discover in what follows, but able to talk as well! It is not difficult to imagine someone hearing this reading for the first time saying: “What kind of nonsense is this, anyway? Here we are at the beginning of the third millennium, and we’re supposed to take this seriously? Give me a break!”

          What about it? How should we take this reading? Literally? Of course not. But seriously? Yes indeed. It is only the story’s incidentals, such as the talking snake, and “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil,” which are childlike.  Underneath these fanciful details the story is not only shrewd but also very true: it corresponds, as we shall see, to what we daily experience.

          It is a story about testing. The man and woman in the first reading fail the test. The gospel shows us Jesus being put to his test. He passes the test. The details of his testing, like the details of the story in our first reading, seem fanciful to us, even bizarre. If we had more time, I could show you that they too are very up-to-date, very like what we experience. For that I must ask you to wait until the first Sunday in Lent another year. Enough today to concentrate on Adam and Eve.

          “But they’re not called Adam and Eve,” I can hear someone saying. That’s true. Our translation avoids those names for good reason. In the original language, Hebrew, Adam and Eve are the ordinary words for “man” and “woman.” This is not the story of two individuals. It is the story of Everyman and Everywoman — ourselves included.

          Note, first, how their testing begins: with a lie: “Did God really tell you not to eat from any of the trees in the garden?” the serpent asks suggestively. In reality, God had said nothing of the kind. The tempter’s lying question is typical of the one whom Jesus calls “a liar and the father of lies” (Jn. 8:44).

          The serpent continues his lying insinuations even after the woman corrects him, by saying there was only one tree of which God had said: “You shall not eat it or even touch it, lest you die.” 

          “You certainly will not die,” the tempter responds. We’ve all heard the condescending, sarcastic tone in which those words were spoken: “Die? Aw, whadaya talkin’ about?  Don’t be ridiculous. You won’t die. He just says that.” 

          The woman listens just long enough to be impressed. That is her first mistake. She doesn’t realize it, but she’s dealing with a confidence artist. When you encounter someone like that, break off the encounter at once. Staying to discuss the matter can only get you into trouble.

          Having made one mistake, the woman now makes a second: she looks at the forbidden tree and its fruit. “The woman saw that the tree was good for food, pleasing to the eyes, and desirable for gaining wisdom.” Our wills are stronger than our imaginations — if (but only if) we use our wills to control our imaginations. Permit your imagination to wander uncontrolled, and your imagination will take charge, rendering your will powerless. That is what happens to the woman in this story: “So she took some of the fruit and ate it.” 

          Realizing that she has done wrong, that she has disobeyed the Lord God who has given her and the man the beautiful garden where they live, her first concern is to get someone to share her guilt with her: “And she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.” At this point it is worth pausing to wonder whether, if the Bible had been written by women instead of men, the story might not have been a little different. Possibly we would find the roles reversed.

          Be that as it may, what they have done (harmless as it may seem to us) has consequences: “Then the eyes of them both were opened, and they realized that they were naked.” Now we understand the tree’s name: “The tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” You can’t find such a tree in any botany book. The tree, and its name, are symbolic. Now that the man and woman have tasted the tree’s forbidden fruit, they know good and evil in a way they had not known them before. They have tasted evil.

          The story’s sad conclusion, which was not included in our reading, is closest of all to our experience. Confronted by God, they are ashamed and helpless. They can construct only the most pitiful of defenses. All they can do is pass the buck. Each of them blames it on the other. They both blame the serpent. 

          How true to life that is! Those of us old enough to recall World War II remember something similar at its close. The day after Adolf Hitler’s squalid suicide in his Berlin bunker, there wasn’t a single Nazi to be found in all of Germany.  Coming closer to home and nearer in time, I could cite the collapse of the Enron corporation in October 2001. Nobody, it seems was responsible. The company’s president sent out his wife to tell a nationwide TV audience that her husband (known until then as one of the country’s great hot-shot executives) had been kept in the dark by his associates. Other officers of the company said they had  warned of danger ahead — but no one would listen.

          But why look at other peoples’ sins? Which one of us has never tried to avoid responsibility by blaming others?

          This is no simple legend of a credulous and primitive people. It shows deep psychological insight into our human condition. We can distinguish right from wrong. All that is best in us draws us to choose good and refuse evil. Yet time and again we do the opposite.  The story, in short, is the biblical writer’s attempt to explain what we daily experience. 

          In our second reading, however, Paul tells us that the story has another chapter. “Just as through the disobedience of the one man, the many were made sinners, so, through the obedience of the one, the many will be made righteous.”  The one obedient man is Jesus Christ. The man and woman in the first reading are put to the test, and fail. Put to his test in the gospel, Jesus rejects evil, and emerges triumphant.

          At birth we inherit the fallen human nature of which we read in Genesis. At baptism, which is our birth into the great family of God which we call the Catholic Church, we receive a share in the unfallen nature of the perfect man, Christ Jesus. Is it any wonder that we so often experience conflict within? Fallen human nature drags us down. The Christ-life within us, received at baptism, pulls us up. Is there anyone here who does not long to see the Christ-life victorious over the dark forces within which threaten to drag us down from what we know to be the highest and best?  

          Jesus Christ knows, from his own experience, how bitter that inner conflict can become. He knows that without a power greater than our own we cannot pass the test. That is why he offers us here his Body and Blood: not a good conduct reward for services rendered, but medicine for sick sinners: strengthening, nourishing food for those who come, dusty, weary, and wounded from life’s pilgrimage; seeking strength to journey on another day, another week; pitching our tent each night a day’s march nearer home.