First Sunday of Lent, Cycle A — Modern
Matthew 4: 1-11
On this first Sunday of the Lenten season the Church reminds us of the reason why we take up a special penitential observance each year: to acknowledge in an honest and way the mystery of sin at work in our lives, and to remember and rejoice in our victory over sin and death through Christ. This movement is begun today through a reading of two key passages of the scriptures, the first of which gives voice to the universal recognition of the place of sin in human life, while the second passage offers us a surpassing reason to celebrate in spite of sin’s apparently constant presence and the pain it causes.
First we turn to the Book of Genesis and hear an excerpt from the account of the creation of the primordial man, and of his being placed “in the garden”. While the lectionary passes over it, this account continues with the telling of the creation by God of a wide variety of creatures, including the serpent whom we will encounter shortly, and the woman who is the protagonist of the following narrative. We all know “the rest of the story”: the serpent engages in a dialogue with the woman—she has not yet been named “Eve”—and she eventually takes of the fruit that was forbidden to her and the man and eats it. After the man too has eaten of the fruit their eyes are opened to their situation, and they are ashamed and try to hide from God, much as we are ashamed when we sin.
As Catholics we do not read this biblical story as though it represents an actual historical event; only if we read the accounts of creation and the “Fall” in a fundamentalistic way, alien to the Catholic tradition, would we find anything in it that contradicts our contemporary scientific knowledge of human origins. The reading does not seek to recount the beginnings of man but to wrestle with the compelling reality of sin and the woundedness it brings about in everyone’s life from the very beginning of humanity.
We most credibly grasp our faith, in fact, when we see in the figures of “Adam and Eve,” “the serpent,” and the “Garden of Eden” an attempt to capture in beautiful poetic images the true nature of humanity’s plight, mired as it is in the pain of sin. That which is described in the early pages of Genesis did not happen at some moment in a garden in the Middle East several thousand years ago; rather, it unfolds in each of our lives when we find ourselves confronted with the seeming inevitability of sin and our own tendency to turn inward in selfishness, instead of extending ourselves outward in love in an effort to find our true fulfillment in God.
One point that is underlined in the Genesis story is that the serpent is said to be shrewd. This is worth reflection: shrewdness, intelligence, and knowledge are morally ambiguous—they can be good or bad. The decision as to how we will employ these gifts is ours, yet all too often we seem almost destined to make the wrong choice. The subtleties of the Eden narrative remind us of this when we observe that the serpent never lies nor does anything evil: while its intentions may be devilish, in reality it simply presents some possibilities to the woman, who chooses her own course.
We are not left hanging between good and evil, however: alongside the sobering words of Genesis the Church brings before us the joyful proclamation of St. Paul, when in his letter to the early Christian community in Rome he announces that in spite of the universality of sin we have the assurance of liberation from the power of sin and justification from its alienating effects through the death and resurrection of Christ. He writes: Just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also, through the obedience of the one, the many will be made righteous (Rom 5:19).
The obedience St. Paul speaks of in Christ’s acceptance of death on our behalf is also seen in a triumphant manner in the Gospel reading, today taken from St. Matthew. There we hear how Christ, having just been baptized and affirmed by God, is in a battle of wills with “the devil”. Remarkably, both Jesus and the devil cite scripture, and both demonstrate an understanding of the power of God, yet they do so in profoundly different ways. What is it that distinguishes Christ’s interpretation of the scriptures from the devil’s? And how do we see this as a continuation or reflection of what unfolds in Genesis?
A Moral Lesson
We see that the devil approaches Jesus in a moment of deep vulnerability—he has been fasting for a long time and is racked by hunger. Having found what seems to be an opportunity the tempter proceeds to play on Jesus’ status as the Son of God: If you are the Son of God, command that these stones become loaves of bread (Matt 4:3). After playing on Jesus’ hunger, the evil one then challenges his fear as he is perched on the parapet of the Temple, and finally fastens upon Jesus’ awareness of the worldly power that is at his disposal as he is shown all of the kingdoms of the earth. The devil does the same with us today whenever we are vulnerable, preying upon our innate desire for self preservation and advantage, in whatever situation we find ourselves.
Whatever the devil proposes in Matthew’s Gospel however, Jesus has an infinitely superior response: this is because each of the tempter’s proposals is self-focused, while each response of Christ is focused completely on God and love for him. Do Paul’s earlier words in Romans help us here? Paul teaches us that while sin is universal in its presence and reign, seen in the self-focus which so often pre-occupies us, the redemption and justification that is ours in Christ, which comes about through Jesus’ God-focused, self-giving love, is infinitely superior. St. Paul takes us back to the lesson we learned from the story of Adam and Eve in the book of Genesis and reminds us that their and our selfish attempts to take by force that which is desired resulted in alienation from God, while the self-surrendering love of Christ seen in his death and vindicated in his resurrection bring us all the possibility of a new and supremely joyful and meaningful life in him.
The Church draws its dogmatic teaching on original sin, defined at the council of Trent in the sixteenth century, from the scripture passages we hear in this Sunday’s first two readings. That which is revealed in the powerful symbols of Genesis regarding sin and its effects is crafted into a Christ-centered message in the Letter to the Romans. We must never lose sight however, of the fact that the victory over sin as described in Genesis and Romans was made perfect—and made ours!—through the death and resurrection of Christ, upon which we humbly reflect in this Lenten season, so that after forty days “in the desert” with Jesus we may with fullness of joy exalt as God’s Easter people.
Fr. Edward Mazich, O.S.B.