Sunday, March 9, 2014

First Sunday of Lent: Genesis 2-3, Matthew 4

Once upon a time, our story goes, there was a Being whose essential truth was an extraordinary communion of  three distinct persons so profound that the three, though distinct, formed one reality.  To this Being, human language gives the name God.  (Of course, "a Being" isn't quite right.  God is not one being among many, as theologians wear out their keyboards trying to explain.  God IS in a way that can't be said of anything else that exists. Let that much do for now.)

One day, when there were as yet no "days" because there was no time, God set about creating what we know as the universe we live in.  In the last verses of the creation story as told in Genesis 1, God created humanity: "Then God said: Let us make human beings in our image, after our likeness....God created mankind in his image; in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them" (Genesis 1:26-27).

From the artistic genius of a Michelangelo to the illustrations for children's Bibles, the habit of the imagination has been to picture "male and female" as we meet them every day:  two distinct people, one looking like a man, one looking like a woman.  That makes sense to us because that is what we know.  However, the brilliant eleventh-century biblical commentator, Rashi, offers a different perspective: ""God created him first with two faces, and separated them." Blessed John Paul II takes a similar position in his reflections on the primal unity of the human in the Genesis account  as gathered in Male and Female He Created Them: A Theology of the Body.

The poet of Genesis 1 sets the creation of the first humanity at the conclusion of a narrative picture of primal harmony, where each component has its name, its purpose, and its place in the vast scheme of things, and each owes its origin to the divine Creator.  This harmony has never lost its appeal.  It remains the dream that underlies the prophet Isaiah's vision of a holy mountain where predators and prey dwell in peace (Isaiah 11:6-8), words translated, for example, into the numerous paintings of "the peaceable kingdom" by Quaker folk artist Edward Hicks (April 4, 1780-August 23, 1849) which sometimes appear on Christmas cards. 

The picture of primal harmony shifts from reality to dream when the first humans shred it.  The tragedy is laid out in Genesis 3.  The serpent, the deceiver who will grow into a dragon in the Book of Revelation (Revelation 12:9), convinces Eve to pluck and taste the forbidden fruit by assuring her she will not die but will become like a God.  The tragic irony is not lost on the reader familiar with Genesis 1, where the first human beings were made in the image and likeness of God.  Eve's story was written before the Genesis creation poem, though, so she is eager to have what she has already been given but doesn’t know it.  So we come to the famous, or infamous, moment when she crunches down on what the western world would come to see as an apple.  No doubt it tastes good--forbidden fruit usually does till it has hit us where we live. So she passes it to her other half, who takes and eats it without a word, sealing the fate of Eve's daughters to a long role in theology, literature and society as the dangerous temptresses who seduce men into sin. At least in Genesis 3, the man seems pretty willing to be seduced if being handed a piece of fruit counts as seduction.  In fact, since Eve says nothing at all to him, we should perhaps shift the blame to the serpent. Adam was listening to his spiel along with Eve and seems also to have fallen for it.

The seeds of forbidden fruit spring up to become a poisoned harvest.  As soon as the woman obeys the serpent rather than God, and on the basis of an inexplicable trust built on very shaky grounds ( or so it appears to anyone who hasn't succumbed to the serpent's way with words), and as soon as the man ratifies her decision by making it his own, the world falls apart.

These two favored children, the first-born of God's creative love suddenly run for the bushes when they hear God's voice as he arrives for a customary evening stroll in the garden.  For the first of times uncounted, God has to go looking for them.  When God starts asking questions,  these two "faces" of one humanity get into their first fight, or at least what would likely become their first fight when they eventually try to pick events apart and understand them as they stand  outside a gate closed, locked and guarded against them.  Adam dumps the blame for that fatal bite on Eve;  she dumps  it on the serpent; the serpent is smart enough to let it happen without saying a thing, like someone who starts a fight between two others and then steps back out of the way.

God is forced to spell out for them the consequences of what they have done.  "That garden you were placed into, Adam, the one that should have provided you with the satisfaction of your own kind of creativity as you cultivated it, coaxed it into bearing fruit for the future, tilled and planted and cut from it the wheat for the first loaf of home-baked bread?  That garden will now rise up and work against you, making you work it by the sweat of your brow at every hand's turn.  Sorry, your choice.  The children you and Adam were charged to bring into the world to take up the task of caring for it, Eve, the ones who should have given you nothing but joy at their arrival?  They will now give you terrible pain at their birth.  (Eve will learn only after her boys are grown that they will bring more pain than she could ever have imagined during delivery once they reach maturity.)  Sorry, your choice too.  And this place, this beautiful garden I planted for you?  You've got to leave it for a much colder, harsher climate in lands that will never be your friends.  Your choice, your choice, and My everlasting grief!  It will cost you more than you dream of now, and it will cost Me my Son."  Or words to that effect!

So Adam and Eve, shivering in their fig leaves, prepare to leave what later generations would call paradise, to face the soul-searing loneliness of a world from which all harmony has fled, even the harmony of spouse with spouse, brother with brother.

We've all been here ever since, trying to make our way home to the garden.  When Jesus joined us on the road, he began his public ministry with a forty-day stint in the desert, as recounted in today's gospel.  At his lowest point, after a very long fast, which was probably not measured in terms of how many small and normal meals he ate per day, the Tempter from the garden reappeared on the scene for another conversation.  It was a key moment. 

With Eve and Adam, he had won the first battle, but not the war. Of course the war was not with poor, silly human beings.  They were just cannon fodder.  The real war was and is between Evil and God.  (C.S. Lewis imagines all this brilliantly in The Screwtape Letters.)  And here was a man who was the image of the Father in  far more profound way than the first couple (Colossians 115-20).  Here was the one who was the beginning of the new humanity made in the image and likeness of God, the one in whom the image would be brought to its planned perfection once he passed through death to eternal life in God.  It isn't clear that the Tempter knew all that.  He did seem to think there was at least a good chance that this one, at last, was "the Son of God" in a different ), even though the Tempter might not have been sure what that meant.  What he was sure of, it seems, was that here was God's Achilles heel.  Bring this one down, and the war would be over and won.  And not by God.

The Tempter, remember, is the one who specializes in falsity beyond any human beings can come up with.  And he is cleverly persuasive with it.  What he addresses to Jesus seems to be Satan's own definition of what the Son of God should look like, what he should do.  He's not as clever as he thinks he is.  He clearly gives away what he would do if he were the Son of God, or even (his obvious hope since that first conversation at the fruit tree).  He would prove his status and his power in such a way that no one could doubt or deny him.  He could and would do the one thing God will not:  he could force the obedience of all lesser beings.  He doesn't have the handicap of a real Son of God in that game.  He does not love.  Quite the contrary.

This cunning Tempter bases his script on a vision of human beings falsified to the core core.  He wants Jesus to betray his own truth as the one defined by what he will teach:  love of God and neighbor so great that it takes precedence over any hint of self-interest.  The whisperer tries to persuade him to do that by acting as one totally isolated from all relationships, the one in whom the disintegration of all bonds begun in Eden is finally brought to completion.  He tries to convince Jesus to act entirely by himself alone and for himself alone, with reference neither to God nor to neighbor.  "You must be hungry.  Feed yourself by your own power . You know you have it in you to turn these stones into bread.  Forget the myriads of starving human beings waiting everywhere for you to provide them with bread, the real Bread of Life.  Force God's hand to take care of you.  Power is all!  You can control even God-- his own words in Psalm 91 prove it.  He may be called "almighty," but love has made him a weakling after all.  Take over the empire that awaits you, take over all the kingdoms of the world--in a moment, without effort, and certainly without that stupid business of the cross that lies in your future if you stay on the path you're traveling now."  The Tempter may not realize that here he has let slip his real plan. He has put on God's mantle, for it is God who says in Psalm 2, "You are my Son. It is I who have begotten you this day. Ask of me and I will give you the nations as your inheritance, and the ends of the earth as your possession". Clever, this Tempter, but sometimes not too smart.

He doesn't win.  Not this battle, and not the war, though he doesn't seem to know that yet.  He will keep trying in Jesus'  lifetime;  he is still trying in ours.  Let us not underestimate him.  Genesis 3 reminds us how easily our hungers can dupe us into choosing quicker, easier satisfactions than the long, hard road Jesus has carved out for us.  The fruit that looked so good to Eve has lost none of its appeal.  And history teaches us that though Evil may never win the war, indeed cannot,  this persistent Whisperer seems willing to make do with success in one small  battle after another—with one of us as the prize. If the Tempter cannot now kill Christ,  it appears he can at least take pleasure in wounding him again in his only vulnerability, his love for us. 

However, Matthew's story of that fateful meeting in the desert reminds us that there is a power that will defeat the whispers every time.  It is the word of God.  The more we absorb it, the greater will be our defense against seductive untruths (see John 8:31-31).  But we needn't worry about our own uncertain ability to wield this weapon with success against subtleties that undermine even the strongest resolutions.  The story that unfolds through Lent into Easter and beyond assures us that Christ, who not only speaks the word with authority but is the very Word made flesh, will never walk away and leave us to our own devices. "I am with you always," he says (Matthew 28:20). However alone and powerless we may feel,  he is assuring us that he will never abandon the arena for a more comfortable spot far away in heaven.  He will continue to rescue and shield us until the last sentence of our story is written, and God lays down the pen. 

So, Christ's message to us on this first Sunday of Lent is what it has always been: "Do not be frightened by the words you have heard" (Isaiah 37:6). And, when we are nevertheless shaking in our shoes--let's be honest, the Tempter seem frighteningly strong as he tries to pull us into the undertow in a chaotic sea—Jesus says again what he said to the disciples in the boat at night:  "Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid" (Matthew 14:27).

Notes:
Rashi is the name commonly given to RAbbi SHlomo Itzhak i(February 22, 1040 – July 13, 1105).  The sentence found here is quoted from Avivah Gotlieb Zornberg, The Beginning of Desire: Reflections on Genesis. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

C.S. Lewis’ imagined account of a conversation between a senior demon and his nephew about the incomprehensible fact that God seems actually to love us human vermin, as the demon calls us, whereas the devil is intent upon devouring us instead is worth reading during Lent.  The title is The Screwtape Letters, and you will find it available in many print and e-book editions.


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