Brief synopsis of the readings: We begin Lent with the story of Adam, Eve and the serpent. After creating Adam and Eve God created Eden for them. They were instructed to eat anything in the garden except the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. But the serpent encouraged Eve to eat of that tree, promising that God really wanted her to. Instead of dying Eve is promised that they will have their eyes opened and they will be like gods. Eve ate some of it and gave some to Adam who also ate. After eating the fruit their eyes were opened and they recognized they were naked. They then sewed fig leaves together to cover themselves. Matthew’s Gospel describes Jesus being led by the Spirit into the wilderness. There Jesus fasted for forty days and was hungry. In that condition the devil appeared and suggested Jesus could turn stones into bread and eat his fill, but Jesus refused. The devil then told Jesus to throw himself off a cliff knowing the angels would save him. Again Jesus refused. Finally the devil promised Jesus a kingdom if Jesus would swear loyalty to him. When Jesus refused a third time the devil left him.
Welcome to the first Sunday of Lent. As I said at the beginning of Advent many of us feel like Advent is too short and Lent is too long. For what it’s worth Easter is April 9th. Fasten your seatbelts everyone.
Reading something like our first reading is at least a little fraught because we can easily gloss over the details because we’ve heard it so many times. God knows when I was a child we were given a specific interpretation. Adam and Eve were given all anyone could want with only one (only one) instruction: don’t eat anything from this tree. They willfully disobeyed God’s only instruction and messed things up for the rest of us. They gave us original sin, hard labor, painful childbirth (also hard labor) and death. And in fairness as children we were an easy group to sell that too: we were used to having everyone punished for the actions of a few. We all lose recess because a few fellow students misbehave. We’re told not to blame others for being late when the school bus got caught in a traffic jam. Both children in a fight are punished because nobody will confess to starting the fight.
And here comes Jesus: he is placed in a bad situation and given a temptation that would defeat almost anyone. And yet he held up. And we all live happily ever after as long as we do what we’re told. Just as Jesus fasted, we’re supposed to fast also. What do you like, so you can give it up for Lent? Candy? Alcohol? Soda? If we do this we can celebrate this with abandon on Easter.
OK, so let’s start with the first reading from Genesis. I know several parents who have chuckled at the idea of telling a child he can play with any toy in the box except for one. Just the idea that they aren’t supposed to play with something makes it much too tempting. If God really didn’t want Adam and Eve to eat the fruit, why on earth would he put it right in front of them? What if the serpent’s words weren’t entirely wrong? In fact Adam and Eve didn’t die and their eyes were indeed opened. If Adam and Eve were simply the highest of the creatures they would not have been capable of sin but they also wouldn’t have been able to know and love God. Creatures operate only out of instinct: they eat, hunt, and reproduce in ways that are hard wired into them. They don’t exercise choice which means they can’t sin. But they can’t act out of generosity or altruism either.
When the eyes of Adam and Eve were opened the world didn’t change but their view of it did. Their choice opened an entire world of other choices. What do we eat, how do we love, what do we do. And given this, how do we look at Lent? I suggest that simply giving up something we like is, well, perhaps a little childish. If we’re doing the same thing for Lent we did when we were 10 years old we’re cheating ourselves.
I don’t wish to carry this too far but Jesus gave up a great deal in part of his preparation not only for Easter but also for Good Friday. He clearly separated himself to transform himself. We clearly can’t wander into the desert for 40 days, particularly when we have to go to work tomorrow continue to feed our families. Self help books often leave us feeling vaguely guilty because they suggest major changes with the implied promise that it will be easy. We’re also tempted to put “find balance” on our already full list of things we want to do.
A few years ago I made the decision to stop averting my eyes when I see someone at an intersection holding a sign asking for help. Knowing what they need and providing it often proves complex and difficult. But I didn’t promise to give anything, only that I would make eye contact. I like to think it did a few things. I like to think the person with the sign appreciated that someone wasn’t embarrassed to look at them. I like to think that if I could I could give some verbal encouragement that would be welcome (and for what it’s worth, whenever I say “God Bless” they always return the greeting). Finally I think it makes me just a little more compassionate to that person’s plight. I’ve been aware how often that person looks like me and the circumstances that brought to this place weren’t written in stone, that at many places in my life I’ve been one layoff notice or injury away from being in his place.
Maybe this Lent we look anew at our first ancestors and recognize that some of what they gave us was a gift that allowed us to know and love God in a deeper way. And maybe we can start something in our own lives that will go beyond Easter and allow us to become just a little more compassionate and caring. After all, there will be a Lent 2024 where we can continue this.