Sunday, March 9, 2014

Year A First Sunday of Lent

Readings: Gen 2:7-9.3:1-7; Ps 51:3-6.12-13.17; Rom 5:12.17-19; Matt 4:1-11

In order to experience God's mercy, you must first acknowledge your need for it. Our Psalm response for this First Sunday of Lent, which is the same response we sang on Ash Wednesday, is nothing except our cry for God’s mercy. It’s important to note that, even though it’s Lent, we utter our plea for mercy in the knowledge that God has heard and answered our cry by sending Jesus Christ, who is Divine Mercy.

It was the famous journalist and author Malcolm Muggeridge, an adult convert to our Catholic faith, who noted that original sin is the most empirically verifiable fact in the world. Our first reading today is part of a tremendously creative narrative that tells about the fall, what we refer theologically as the “ancestral sin.” Humanity originally existed in a state of original grace, which was lost through disobedience. It is not the purpose of the two creation narratives we find in the Book of Genesis to enlighten us about how things came to be. They were written as theological narratives to tell us why there is something rather nothing and to answer the big existential question, “Why do I exist?”

The narrative of our first reading depicts a world of harmony prior to the fall, what we might call a world in communion. There is communion between people and God. Their relationship with God is immediate. God speaks directly to them and they speak directly to God. There is harmony between the man and the woman. Lastly, there is harmony between people and nature.

The man and woman live in a vibrant garden, surrounded by the beauty of nature, a garden containing many fruit-bearing trees. God tells them they can eat of the fruit of all the trees in the garden, except the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden. This tree in the middle of the garden is symbolic. Mainly, it symbolizes the limits of our creatureliness, the main ontological barrier between God and humanity. God is self-subsistent. Without God nothing else would exist. By contrast, we are creatures, who exist only because God created us and continues to hold us in existence.



One day along comes the serpent and asks the woman if God really commanded that she not eat from any of the trees in the garden. Of course, the woman replied by saying that almost the opposite was true, she could eat from all the trees, except the one and noted that God said if she ate from that tree she would die. Here is where we gain deep insight into our human condition, from which condition Christ came to save us. The serpent declares, “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 who know what is good and what is evil” (Gen 3:4-5). Seeing that the fruit looked pretty tasty, the woman picked a piece and ate it, thus doing the one and only thing God commanded her not to do!

There are many silly ideas about exactly what the ancestral sin was. Some wonder exactly what kind of fruit it was and whether we should eat that kind of fruit ourselves, others, noting that the man and the woman became aware of their nakedness may then have engaged in relations, which relations constitute the original sin. It does not matter what kind of fruit it was. No specific kind of fruit is mentioned. As to the second, the command to be fruitful and multiply was given prior to their disobedience. My friends, the temptation to which they succumbed, to which they gave in, is the same one you and I give into whenever we sin- the temptation to usurp God’s place and install ourselves in His stead, seeking to order the world, what is right and wrong, each one for himself. The Act of Contrition we make when we go to confession states this very well: “My God I am sorry for my sins with all my heart. In choosing to do wrong and failing to do good, I have sinned against you, whom I should love above all things.” Sin is when we choose to love ourselves more than we love God and neighbor. Hence, following Jesus Christ means dying to ourselves and endeavoring to live lives of selfless service.

Extending our first reading a bit beyond the lectionary, we read that after the woman eats the fruit and gives some to her husband the previously mentioned harmonies rapidly break down: God comes to find them, they try to hide. Of course, you can’t hide from God. When God asks the man if he has eaten fruit from the forbidden tree, instead of answering “Yes,” he turns to the woman and says, “The woman whom you put here with me—she gave me fruit from the tree, so I ate it” (Gen 3:12). When queried by God, the woman says, “The snake tricked me, so I ate it” (Gen 3:13b). It has been God’s sole purpose ever since to restore the world to communion, to a state of grace.

Original sin is not transmitted biologically. Neither can it be characterized as God continuing to take out His anger on us in vengeance for the ancestral sin. Perhaps the best way to characterize original sin is as the dysfunction of the human family. After all, even our most private sins affect others, if in no other way than in how we view and relate to other people.

This is precisely what St. Paul is getting at in our second reading: “For if, by the transgression of one person, death came to reign through that one, how much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of justification come to reign in life through the one person Jesus Christ” (Rom 5:17).

In light of this, our lives are accurately summarized as a journey, a pilgrimage, from one garden to another garden. In the context of our Cathedral, the journey from the font to the altar (with the aid stations we call “Confessionals” to help us on our way). Those who, in a few moments we will “send” to the Rite of Election/Call to Continuing Conversion, will begin a new leg of their journey towards the Easter sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, and Eucharist through their participation in these rites with Bishop Wester next Saturday, passing an important milestone on their pilgrimage.



In today’s Gospel, Jesus, in His freedom, chooses to deny Himself three times, choosing instead to love the Father and us by persevering in His fasting in preparation for the beginning of His earthly ministry, which ended with His passion, death, and resurrection. His self-denial stands in contrast to the self-indulgence of the Fall. The selflessness of Jesus shows us concretely what St. Paul meant when he wrote that even though Jesus “was in the form of God, [He] did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself…" (Phil 2:6-7a).

My friends, through this Lent we are invited to participate in the Paschal Mystery, to more consciously walk our journey of faith, seeking to identify and, with divine assistance, put to death our selfishness, those behaviors that get in the way of our relationship with God and our relationships with other people. Thank you, my dear Catechumens and Candidates, for accepting the Lord’s invitation to join our company and giving us fresh inspiration and energy as we make our pilgrim way together to the fullness God has prepared for us from the beginning.

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