Sunday, March 13, 2011

Homily for 1st Sunday of Lent

Homily for the
1st Sunday of Lent
March 13, 2011
Gen 2: 7-9; 3: 1-7
Rom 5: 12, 17-19
Matt 4: 1-11
Ursulines, Willow Dr., N.R.

“The Lord God … blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and so man became a living being” (Gen 2: 7).

Humanity is God’s own handiwork, the craft of his hands, created to breathe the very Spirit of God (breath and spirit being the same word in Hebrew, ruah, as well as in Greek, pneuma). What an origin! What a dignity! Isn’t it obvious that human dignity, human rights, is a religious concern?

And God created for the human race a beautiful natural world in which to live, to be nourished by, to take delight in. We might imagine ourselves (maybe not at this time of year) at Lake George or in Yosemite or on some flowery tropical isle, with an abundance of food and drink at hand and no harsh demands upon us—a perpetual vacation spot, a paradise, as we readily say, a veritable Eden!

The Garden of Eden by Thomas Cole
And God created mankind for life. In this paradise he put the tree of life (2:9) to keep the body alive and functioning in harmony with that divine spirit-breath. The book of Wisdom says: “God did not make death. He fashioned all things that they might have being” (1:13,14).

The only caveat was one of humility—a word that comes from humus in Latin, meaning “ground, earth, soil, dirt”; hence a virtue that bespeaks our origins from “the clay of the ground” (2:7), a virtue that recalls to us who we are. Human beings shouldn’t overreach by wanting to be more than they are by nature; wanting to know what evil is. You remember that in biblical usage knowledge is more than an intellectual exercise: it’s experience. Not in everything is it good to have our “eyes opened.” To take a story from current news, who really wants to know what an 8.9 earthquake is, or a 25-foot tsunami? It’s not really good for us to know what evil is. Certainly it’s not good for us to want to rival God, to “be like gods” (3:5).

The Yahwist, the sacred writer who gives us this portion of Genesis (so the scholars tell us), well understood the nature of temptation—how easy, how alluring it is, for us to want to be more than we are, do more than we can, lord it over others, become our own rule-makers, not have to answer to anyone for our words and actions. Is there anyone here who’s never said, much less thought, “If I were in charge—of the Church, of the country, of the universe…?”

Temptation & Fall of Adam & Eve by William Blake

We hear that being President easily goes to a man’s head—and they’ve said that for years, so it doesn’t refer to the incumbent. Archbishop Marino (may he rest in peace) used to say that becoming a bishop meant you’d never again have a bad meal or hear an honest opinion.

“You will be like gods”—to exercise our own infallible judgment, to bend everyone to our will (“so let it be written; so let it be done!”), and not to have to submit to anyone. It’s a great theme in literature and history—the person who challenges the gods (Prometheus, Oedipus, Julian the Apostate), the ambitious or driven person who recklessly destroys anyone who opposes him or her till coming undone himself or herself (Becky Sharp, Captain Ahab, Anne Boleyn, Napoleon). It’s a daily story in the news: the ruler whose power goes to his head; the cleric who forgets that Jesus came to serve, be a shepherd, give his life; the star athlete or Hollywood idol who breaks the rules of life; the financial or industrial tycoon who treats society with contempt—“Only little people pay taxes,” quoth Leona Helmsley.

In the Genesis story the temptation proves fatal to what the Greeks would call the hubris of the blessed couple in the garden of God. But Jesus, in no such paradise—the Judean desert has no “trees that are delightful to look at and good for food” (2:9), nor anything else to make a rational person want to stay there—Jesus demonstrates that temptation doesn’t have to be fatal. The tempter may appeal to our hubris or to our animal instincts, but we can resist; we can remain loyal to our origin and our dignity as God’s handiwork.

Why is Jesus able to resist? 1st, because he knows who he is. His 40 days in the desert follow his baptism and the revelation there at the Jordan (Matt 3:13-17). 2d, because he has totally submitted himself to the Father, symbolized by that baptismal rite and by his following “the Spirit into the desert” (4:1). 3d, because he’s grounded in the Word of God, which he has read, studied, and made a part of himself.

Jesus casting out Satan by Carl Bloch
Jesus’ resistance to the tempter and his perseverance in following the Spirit eventually lead him to victory over death, that penalty for sin inflicted upon our 1st parents and on all of us affected by their transgression (cf. Rom 5:17). Jesus’ obedience, in contrast to their disobedience, graces all of us who join ourselves to him (5:17) and are made righteous (5:19). His resistance is more than an example, a model, for us. Models may encourage us, may show us the right steps to take in our own lives—models like the saints—but they don’t necessarily DO anything for us. Jesus does. He’s the new Adam, created by God to give humanity a fresh start in “original grace,” filled again with the divine life-breath. In the patristic reading in today’s Divine Office, St. Augustine writes: “If in Christ we have been tempted, in him we overcome the devil. Do you think only of Christ’s temptation and fail to think of his victory? See yourself as tempted in him, and see yourself as victorious in him.”[1] Christ’s temptations are not only those in the desert, but also those in his passion: the temptation in the Garden of Gethsemane to avoid his cup of suffering, the temptation to despair on the cross. But he emerged victorious—and we with him.

So we come to him in this season of repentance, asking for mercy, as the Collect says,[2] asking for life.

[1] Commentary on the Psalms, 60:2-3, in LOH 2:88.

[2] Alternate Opening Prayer for the 1st Sunday of Lent.

No comments: