Sunday, March 5, 2017

Homily for 1st Sunday of Lent

Homily for the
1st Sunday of Lent
March 5, 2017
Gen 2: 7-9, 3: 1-7
Ps 51
Rom 5: 12-19
Matt 4: 1-11
Holy Cross, Champaign, Ill.

“Thru one man sin entered the world, and thru sin, death, and thus death came to all men, inasmuch as all sinned” (Rom 5: 12).

The sacred Scriptures today summarize salvation history.

We don’t read the opening chapters of Genesis literally, as we do, for instance, the stories of Israel’s kings or the accounts of Jesus’ ministry.  But we do learn from those early chapters that God created for us a good world; that he created men and women in his own image, including the gift of freedom; that we abused that freedom by choosing evil rather than good, and so we—not God—introduced evil into creation:  “Thru one man sin entered the world, and thru sin, death.”

Did God have to create us with freedom?  Of course not.  But he made many, many creatures that lack freedom:  the stars, the trees, the rocks, the oceans, the beasts, and the birds.  They all glorify God but have no choice about it.  They just are.  Generally speaking, if you have a dog, you know that it will love and be loyal to just about anyone who feeds it and rubs its tummy.  If you have a cat—well, you’re loyal to the cat, which is more interested in the song birds in your flower beds than in you.  (My family has had lots of dogs and a few cats.)

God created 2 forms of creatures who do have a choice because they’re free—so that their praise of God, their acting well, glorifies God in a way that the stars and rocks and animals don’t.  Those 2 creatures are the angels and human beings.  We don’t know how it was the angels chose evil and became devils, except that they chose that course, and some angels remained loyal to their Creator (since angels don’t have bodies, obviously, no belly rub was needed).  There are various pious stories and theories about that, but no biblical evidence and no dogmatic teaching.

God doesn’t have a body either.  So if God created men and women in his own image, it’s not on the basis of our bodies.  Which is probably a good thing!  By the freedom of our minds and our souls we image God.  However it happened at the origins of humanity, we used that God-given gift of freedom, that imaging of God, to reject him and choose ourselves.  Even Greek mythology knew that was a bad thing—poor Narcissus was doomed because he worshiped his own image reflected in a pool of water.  According to Genesis, the 1st human beings were companions of the all-perfect, all-good, and all-wise God; were in an intimate relationship with him.  But they wanted something … less:  “The woman saw that the tree was good for food, pleasing to the eyes, and desirable for gaining wisdom” (Gen 3:6):  goodness, pleasure, and wisdom, but not God.  And less than goodness, wisdom, and the deepest satisfaction of our souls is what we got instead of God.  We got evil, chaos, betrayal, and death.
The Temptation & Fall of Man
(William Blake)
Catholic writer George Weigel puts it this way:

Adam and Eve will decide for themselves what is good and what is bad for them, rather than accepting the gift of God’s specification of good and evil.  Egotistical, self-centered self-assertion is the primordial sin.  And in its consequences—the quest for control … the quest for power … [imposing] my will on my own life, on others, and on the world—self-asserting pride prepared the ground for the rest of the catalogue of death-dealing sins.[1]

Some human beings actually find a sadistic glee in evil, chaos, betrayal, and death.  Think of the monster dictators of the last century, or of ISIS or Kim Jong-Un or drug kings or human traffickers today. Some human beings only lament the evil and death of the world we live in, and hopelessly throw up their hands:  what’re you gonna do?  And some human beings go beyond lamentation and cry to God for pardon and redemption.

So we hear the Psalmist plead:  “Have mercy on me, O God, in your goodness; in the greatness of your compassion wipe out my offense.  Thoroughly wash me from my guilt, and of my sin cleanse me” (Ps 51:3-4).  Traditionally, that psalm is ascribed to King David; its 1st 2 verses are actually a title:  “A psalm of David, when Nathan the prophet came to him after his sin with Bathsheba.”  David had committed adultery and murder, and was convicted of his crimes by the prophet (2 Sam 11-12).  God pardoned David, but eventually, like all of us, he paid the price of sin:  “the wages of sin is death,” St. Paul states bluntly (Rom 6:23).

God’s original plan for men and women was glorious.  But we used our freedom to blow up the plan.  So God went to Plan B:  “the abundance of grace and of the gift of justification come to reign in life thru the one man Jesus Christ” (Rom 5:17).  If the rebellion of one man—Genesis blames the woman, Paul the man—the obedience of another man undoes the crime and restores humanity to God’s grace.  The name Adam, incidentally, means literally “the human being”; in other words, Everyman.  Jesus Christ comes as another Everyman, embodying in himself the ideal human being—the perfect image of God; in fact, St. Paul calls him “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation” (Col 1:15), i.e., of the new creation, as Adam had been the firstborn of the old creation.

This new Everyman, this new Adam, makes all men and women just again.  “Just” means right with God, holy.  God of course, didn’t have to pull out Plan B.  He could’ve done what you and I tend to do:  OK, people, you’ve made your bed.  Now lie in it.  Go on killing, lying, stealing, betraying, wreaking sexual havoc; and when your miserable life is done, then go to hell with those rebel angels whose horrid voices you’ve listened to.

Well, thank God, God’s not like us!  Thank God, he sent his Son to become incarnate, to become a human being, to be a new Adam, an obedient Adam, who would take us along with him into a just relationship with God, as the original Adam had destroyed that relationship.  “The gift is not like the transgression.  For if by the transgression of the one, the many died, how much did the grace of God and the gracious gift of the one man Jesus Christ overflow for the many” (Rom 5:17).

The behavior of Jesus of Nazareth is a reverse image of the behavior of our ancestors in the Garden of Eden.  When the serpent (traditionally interpreted to be the devil), whispered his temptation to Eve, she took the bait, preferring her own wisdom, pleasure, and goodness to anything that God had already offered.  When the devil comes to Jesus—tired and hungry—he offers things that are undoubtedly good inasmuch as they’re part of the created world:  bread, reliance on Almighty God, and the power and glory and wealth of the world.  Implicit in the devil’s offer, tho, is self-centeredness—not true reliance on God.  The devil suggests to Jesus that he use his miraculous power to serve himself:  make yourself some bread; that he demonstrate his reliance on God in foolish behavior that has no right to expect God’s protection; that he switch his allegiance from his heavenly Father to the devil, whose evil influence lurks behind so much of the world’s power, glory, and wealth.  Ultimately, Jesus is being asked to choose between carrying out his Father’s Plan B for the redemption of fallen humanity, or blowing off his Father’s plan, as the 1st Adam did.

Lent is our season of preparing for Easter, for participation in the sacred mysteries of the passion, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus:  for becoming part of redeemed humanity or reaffirming our belonging.  The Collect of today’s Mass calls all of this “the riches hidden in Christ.”  And it prays to the Almighty Father that our “worthy conduct pursue their effects,” i.e., the effects of Christ’s passion, death, resurrection, and ascension.  What’s translated here as “conduct” is the Latin word conversatio, which would be more aptly rendered as “conversion of life.”  We pray that a conversion of life may make us worthy of the effects of Christ’s redemption.  And conversion of life means acting less like our 1st parents, who chose their own version of goodness over God’s version, and acting more like Jesus by resisting our own self-centered behavior, choosing instead to worship the Lord our God alone, to serve him alone.

    [1] George Weigel, Roman Pilgrimage: The Station Churches (NY: Basic Books, 2013), p. 57.

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