First Sunday of Lent: 3-5-17
Peace be with You,
This Sunday we celebrate the First Sunday of Lent. That being said, we should not think for one moment that the transition into a new liturgical season marks an abrupt shift in what the Church has to teach us about who God is and who we are meant to be, as revealed most conspicuously in Jesus Christ. For while the Lenten Season focuses our attention most directly on the meaning of our Lord’s Passion, death and Resurrection, we must not think of these events as being disparate from the Incarnation or any of the events of the life of Jesus for that matter. Instead, we must think of them all as singing in concert with one another, each event sounding a different revelatory note in God’s opus known as salvation history.
For this reason, it is good for us to recall that we enter upon the Season of Lent on the heels of our exploration of the Lord’s Sermon on the Mount. Recall that it was said that the life Jesus calls us to in this Sermon represents a new way of looking at life, giving flesh as it were, to his call to repentance (N.B. recall that repentance is translated from the Greek, metanoeite, which means literally to change one’s mind). Moreover, recall that we said that the Sermon on the Mount is a revelatory exposition of the eternal law, explaining how things are meant to work. Last week, this ontological catechesis reached a high point when Jesus asked us to live with complete dependence on God in accordance with our nature, for it is only in him that “we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28) in a more literal sense than our existential experience would suggest. This weekend, Jesus continues the crescendo begun last weekend, but this time joined by the harmonic accompaniment of his life.
Given the popularly poor reading associated with these texts, it is worth noting that the Tradition of the Church, beginning with the Fathers, has always read these passages allegorically or typologically, meaning that they are meant to convey a profound truth in precisely this way. This does not suggest a contradiction with science, but instead relates to us a truth regarding human life in a theologically proper way, leaving the science behind it to the study of science, its proper realm. We simply note here that they are not contradictory and then set the issue aside.
With this in mind, we go all the way back to the very beginning where we find the very same truth proclaimed by Christ last weekend in the Sermon on the Mount in allegorical form, i.e. that we are lifeless apart from the animation which the life of God imparts to us. This is what is indicated when we are told that “the LORD God formed man out of the clay of the ground and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and so man became a living being” (Genesis 2:7, emphasis mine). Notice here that God in no way begrudges humanity life, but freely gives it out of sheer goodness, a reality further noted in that we are told that God tells our first father, Adam, that he “may freely eat of every tree of the garden,” of course with the infamous exception of “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil,” of that tree, God tells Adam, “you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die”(Genesis 2:16-17). Notice what is going on here, God has given humanity vast freedom, a freedom which we were created to enjoy as Paul reminds us (Galatians 5:1), only placing before them (Adam standing in for the whole human family) one prohibition, and one we might consider to sound a bit odd, and which we might have a tendency to set aside immediately as sheer mythology. However, regardless of genre, the Bible is never myth, but as God’s word is always a truth claim. Then how do we understand this prohibition?
The prohibition is to refrain from eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Here we can see an ontological truth painted in allegorical form. Good here indicates life, evil simply the lack thereof, in accordance with the understanding of evil passed down by the likes of Augustine (Enchiridion, 11) and Gregory of Nyssa (Catechetical Oration, 7). Thus, what is prohibited to the human family is simply to decide how life works; said differently, we cannot reach up and seize life as our own possession; not because God is greedy, as we have already seen, but because that simply is not the way God has made things to work. Understood this way, we can easily see why it is that such action would necessarily end in death.
Next notice what the serpent tells Eve; his words are cunning, for he at once “offers” our first parents that which he has no means to give, and moreover, that which God had already given them the means to accomplish should they remain in relationship with him. He tells Eve, “You certainly will not die! No, God knows well that the moment you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods” (Genesis 3:4-5). This is an example of very stealthy oral sleight of hand, if you will. The Devil tells Eve her and Adam “will be like gods,” if they take life for themselves as signified by eating of the tree. However, created in the image of God, Adam and Eve were made to partake of the Divine Life, and more to it, their life depends on partaking of it! Thus, in their very nature God has already given them the ability to “be like God,” and thus when the serpent tells them they will be like “gods,” it sounds intuitively correct. However, in attempting to take hold of life on their own, they at once become like all the “gods” of human history, who “have mouths but they do not speak; they have eyes, but they do not see; they have ears but do not hear, and there is no breath in their mouths” (Psalm 135:16). Time and again, throughout salvation history, from the prophets such as Jeremiah all the way until Jesus, the Word of God will try and shock the human family out of this stupor to realize that true life is only to be had with God (cf. Jeremiah 5:21 & Mark 8:18).
What the Devil was able to accomplish in deceiving the first Adam, we see him set out to do again with the Second Adam, Jesus Christ, in our Gospel reading for today (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:45). Notice the beautiful symmetry between the gospel reading and our first reading for today here. Just previous to being tempted by the Devil, Adam was inbreathed with the Spirit of God, animating him (Gen. 2:7); so to in our gospel reading we are told that Jesus is “led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil” (Matt. 4:1). The stage has now been set for Jesus to begin his work of recapitulation; i.e. of taking up all of human history in a corrective mode that replaces the disobedience of the human family with the corrective of his obedience, an idea we see in the writings of St. Paul (Ephesians 1:10) and carried on by the work of Irenaeus, the latter telling us that Christ, “…in His work of recapitulation, summed up all things, both waging war against our enemy, and crushing him who had at the beginning led us away captives in Adam…”(Against Heresies, Bk. 5.21.2). So, how exactly does Christ conquer the Devil?
By doing precisely what he called us to last weekend, i.e. by being completely obedient to God, which is nothing other than to remain totally dependent upon him, and being focused solely on him. We see this in that the responses Jesus gives to each temptation of the Devil are formulated by Scripture; Deuteronomy 8:3, Deuteronomy 6:6, and Deuteronomy 6:13 respectively. Notice please that all the Scripture passages quoted by Jesus come from Deuteronomy, which reflects the Greek name deuteronomion, which means “second-law giving.” This becomes all the more significant when we notice the manner in which the Devil tempts Jesus perfectly parallels the manner in which he tempted our first parents. First, he points out food as enticing in an attempt to make the Second Adam take his eyes off of God. Second, by twisting the word of God; the Devil actually misquotes Psalm 91 in the second temptation. And finally by tempting to give them what God has already promised but with a twist of disorder. Recall for example that in the Beatitudes Jesus assures the crowd that the meek will inherit the earth, and that the kingdom of God will belong to the poor in spirit, kingdom of God having come to be identified over the years with the person of Jesus himself, the one who unites humanity to God. Here, the Devil promises to give Jesus the “kingdoms of the world” if Jesus worships him, again promising something to Jesus that intuitively sounds right, but is just disordered enough to eliminate the possibility of that promise being fulfilled by grasping at it so as to possess on his own. In short, whereas our first parents become separated from God by not living in accordance with the Law, i.e. the way God made things; Jesus overcomes temptation precisely by living out said Law.
Within these temptations the Devil is throwing ‘all that the world has to offer’ at Jesus, i.e. “the desire of the flesh, desire of the eyes and pride of life,” as St. John tells us (1 John 2:16). We might know these three as pleasure, power, and egocentrism; Jesus tempted with the first in the first temptation, the second in the final temptation and the third coming in the second temptation. And the only way Jesus is able to overcome these temptations is to remain focused on God and trust in his promise; i.e. to remain humbly obedient. Near the beginning of this reflection was mentioned the importance of reading the life of Christ as a whole, and not as fractured parts. This episode of the desert temptation is a good example why. Traditionally, the Church has understood the whole of Christ’s life to be salvific, and Maximus the Confessor helps us to understand how this episode can properly be said to be so. As Maximus understood it, the temptations undergone by Christ in the desert were exemplary of the way he healed the whole of our human nature, overcoming the disordered passions that so often lead us into sin, further separating us from God (Ad Thalassium 21).
My friends, this weekend, as we begin the Season of Lent the Church traditionally calls us to focus on three main activities, each meant to imitate the manner in which we see Jesus overcome the temptations of the Devil in our gospel today. For example, Jesus was able to overcome the first temptation by realizing that there is more to life than physical pleasures, in this case the pleasure of food, and so we are called to fast. In the second temptation, Jesus is tempted to make himself the central concern of his life, and thus we are called to increased prayer. And in the final temptation Jesus is enticed by worldly power, and we in turn, are called to almsgiving, giving away even what we have so as to recognize that all that we could ever possibly have has been given to us by God and thus must be used solely for his glory. By doing these things we not only imitate the actions of Christ, but we become assimilated into his very life, and by his grace we are able to rise from our fallen state to the heights of the life for which we have been created, a life which partakes of the very glory of God.
Your servant in Christ,