The readings for the First Sunday of Lent go back nearly one thousand, seven hundred years. In the Fourth Century, the first Sunday of Lent was also the First Sunday of the Liturgical Year, so it is no surprise that they used these particular readings because in them we find the very heart of the Christian message, the core of why it is we gather together, what it is we hope for, where it is we are going, and how we might get there.
The first reading is taken from the book of Genesis and it tells of the creation of man and woman and of humanity’s Fall from God’s grace. It is a fascinating account from which we can learn much. In our modem arrogance it should not be dismissed as the mythic ponderings of an ancient, primitive nomadic people. This is not just one of many quaint creation accounts. Herein lies the truth of who we are as a species, were we’ve been, and why we struggle, suffer, and die.
While this account is often held up and criticized for its historicity, we should remember that it was never intended to be a history in the social scientific way we understand history today. But it is no less true! Actually I would argue that this is far more profoundly true than many of the more learned and scholarly historical accounts of who we are and where we have come from. The reason I say that is because this account gives precedence to the spiritual struggle of humanity, something that the scientific method misses because it is not concerned with our spiritual nature.
We are spiritual beings and we cannot fully understand ourselves in any other context. This account gives us the tools to face one of the most vexing realities that our human condition must deal with, and that is the existence of evil in a world that God created as good.
In spite of what many may think, this ancient account is no naive account. Just look at what happens in this story and see how evil works against humanity. Then think of how immanent this exact same force is in the world in which we live, even in our own everyday lives.
The Serpent is clever and his work subtle. He does not try to make what is evil look overtly attractive. Rather, he works to pervert the human understanding of God and of the Good. He twists the divine image and deconstructs God’s will. Instead of a loving Creator, God is made to seem as a petty and jealous tyrant king, an unjust authority only seeking His own glory by oppressing His creation and putting ridiculous demands on them. Satan becomes the liberator from this perceived divine oppression; Satan presents himself as the Great Humanist, if you will.
Listen again to the reading. The Serpent says: “Did God really tell you, you cannot eat from any of the trees of the Garden?”
Eve replied: “We may eat of the fruit of any of the trees in the garden it is only about the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden that God said you shall not eat nor even touch lest you die.”
“You certainly shall not die!” Satan mocks. “No, God knows well that moment you eat of that fruit you shall be like gods who know what is good and bad.” In other words Satan is telling Adam and Eve to decide for themselves what is good and what is evil, never mind God.
And it is in this that sin and death enters our existence. In letting ourselves be tricked by the Evil One who clouds our reason and thus makes falsity look true, truth appears to be false. It is said that the Satan’s greatest victory over the modern world happened when he convinced the learned that he does not exist, that he is not to be feared, that there is no longer anything sinful, nor is there even a Hell.
If the cultured despisers of religion do not believe that there is a Satan then how can they defend themselves from him? And yet, even a fool can see Satan’s work around us, see him working in the very same way he has always worked. Subtly and silently Satan continues his work in our society. He simply suggests that the Divine Law is a myth. He tries to makes humanity believe that we know better than God, or even believe that there is no God. He tries to make sin and death seem like a good thing. Thus, we find that euthanasia begins to be seen as something merciful. Abortion begins to be seen as a personal right, a defense against an unwanted medical condition known as pregnancy. A fetus is seen to be simply a mass of human protoplasm. Sexuality now takes on the character of being entertainment. Violence becomes a valid solution to problem solving. And so it goes, on and on.
In this twisting of perception, Truth must necessarily become relative… a personal opinion, not a fact because if it is a fact, then right is right and wrong is wrong whether we think so or not. Furthermore, the subtle Serpent can then be exposed. No, he won’t let that happen! Evil must hide itself in confusion and lies. It cannot stand the light of truth and so rebels against it with all its force.
As the readings continue, we find that God would not be defeated, nor would His creation be ruined by the wiles of the devil. God’s love is too strong and His justice to perfect to be foiled by Satan’s trickery. So it is, as we see in today’s second reading, God sent His Son Jesus to overcome the disobedience of Adam and Eve and to save humanity from its inability to think and act rightly. Jesus so loved humanity that He radically humbled Himself and took on our human nature, and became subject to the Divine Law. He became just as we humans are so that in His obedience we might be saved and that from His humanity we might share in His divinity. He loved us enough to call us to make choices in God’s love and not in our human prideful independence from God.
It is because of Christ’s humanity that we see Jesus being tempted by Satan. Again, as he did with Adam and Eve, the devil is trying to pervert and distort the will of God, trying to get Jesus to choose falsehood over truth.
In the first temptation he tempts Jesus to turn stones into bread. Playing on the hunger and weakness caused by fasting, the Enemy tries to get Jesus to despair and to complain, like the Chosen People did as they spent their time out in the desert after they left their bondage in Egypt. Hoping that he might get Jesus to doubt His identity as Son of God, Satan is trying to get Jesus to prove His power by turning stones into bread. Jesus rejects this temptation and then rebukes the devil saying that it is by the Word of God alone that we must be sustained.
Angry and with wounded pride, Satan then shows Jesus all of the earthly powers that he has won by his deception and trickery, the kingdoms he built on the backs of man’s inhumanity to man, powers won by malice, cruelty and injustice. The souls of the unjust are but mere pawns in his wicked plan. Jesus is told by Satan that all of the glory of earth can be His if only He will turn His back on what is Good and Right and True, turn His back on God Himself. But Jesus sees through this temptation for power, knowing that in the end it will be God who comes out victorious. Satan will be defeated and all of those who trust in God will be saved.
In the third temptation Satan returns to Jesus and again makes another attack on Christ’s Messianic identity. He says to Jesus, “If you really are the Son of God then jump off this parapet and you can prove it once and for all. God will save you if you are who you say you are.” Jesus flatly rebukes him saying, do not test me, for Scripture says: “You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.”
Throughout His life, like all humans, Jesus had to combat the nagging taunts of the devil and avoid the snares that had been set to trap Him. And even through the humiliating death of the Cross, Jesus did not sin but rather was obedient to His Father’s will and because of His obedience decisively defeated the enemy. No matter what the world offered, Jesus maintained His faith in the Goodness of God and remained faithful to His Father’s will.
Christ is now the Head of Humanity and calls us to be the members of His mystical body, the Church, joining us into Him and into His victory over sin and death. It is from the victory of Jesus and the example of His mother and all the saints, and the martyrs and the countless faithful that have gone before us that we can see the truth of Christ being lived out. These people were not corrupted into thinking that good is bad, and that bad is good. They could see the reality that only in adherence to God’s law can we find true happiness. Everything else falls short of the truth and so cannot satisfy.
And this is the core of the Christian message. It is not about some sort of secular social work or community building. Nor is it simply about being nice and kind. Rather, it is fundamentally about the battle between good and evil!
In Jesus Christ we celebrate the victory over evil and the coming of the reign of God. Every Christian is called to conform his or her life to the will of God and be obedient to what God our Father asks of us, not because our God is a power hungry deity, but because He loves us and He made us to love Him with all of our hearts and souls and strength. He knows us better than we know ourselves, and He longs for us to be all that we can be.
This Lent, may we have the faith to turn back to God with all our hearts and trust in His loving care for us. Let us trust in the great victory of Jesus over sin and death and follow Him more closely, knowing that only in His life can we truly find our own and in His love find peace in our hearts, and share it with the hearts and souls of others.