For the first Sunday of Lent the reflection practically has to be on the theme of sin. This is not simply because we began the penitential season of Lent this past Wednesday as we received our ashes, but because the scripture readings demand it. The first reading today is from the Book of Genesis and its account of Adam and Eve and “the fall of man,” as it has often been called. Next we pray Psalm 51 as our responsory, with its constant petitions for forgiveness for sin. Then comes Saint Paul and his Letter to the Romans, interpreting through the eyes of faith in Christ the very same text of Genesis regarding sin that we just heard. Finally, we have the story from the Gospel of Mark of the temptation of Christ by the devil.
With all this reflection on sin it is critically important to remember that when Catholics consider the mystery of sin, and specifically original sin, we must do so, like Saint Paul, by approaching it from the perspective of redemption—“looking back” so to speak, and viewing the movements of the human heart narrated in Genesis through the lens of Christ’s saving action. If we do not do this then our focus naturally falls on the mythical figures of Adam and Eve, the garden, the fruit, and the serpent, rather than on the historical figure of Christ, and his incarnation, death, and resurrection. Symbols would have priority over the reality to which they point. As Pope Benedict XVI explained regarding this subject: “we must never treat the sin of Adam and of humanity separately from the salvific context, in other words, without understanding them within the horizon of justification in Christ.”
What those theologically heavy words mean is something we see at work in our everyday lives: we all sin and feel the sting of the sins of others, and we all find relief in knowing that Christ has defeated sin and that we share in his victory through the forgiveness and mercy he offers us. The definitive nature of Christ’s victory over sin and death is what gives us the hope that, even though we learn slowly and stumble many times, we can eventually share fully in his victory when we live as citizens of the Kingdom of God.
It is precisely God and his Kingdom to which our Lord draws the attention of the devil three times in the course of his temptation, recounted in today’s Gospel. The devil launches each temptation with an offer to satisfy elemental human desires: hunger, protection, and power. The temptations are not so much about those desires themselves, which can be moral or immoral, but about seeking to satisfy them by one’s own actions, instead of by trusting in and cooperating with God’s providence—as Jesus makes clear in his responses to the devil. Rather than give in to selfishness, Jesus specifically invoked God in response to each of the devil’s three temptations to sin. Through Christ we can draw near to the very same God whom Jesus invoked as Father, knowing that in Christ we too are his adopted sons and daughters, and citizens of his Kingdom.
To cite pope Benedict XVI again: “If, in the faith of the Church, an awareness of the dogma of original sin developed, it is because it is inseparably linked to another dogma, that of salvation and freedom in Christ.” We believe in the dogma of original sin, we believe that sin had an historical beginning, and above all we believe that Christ has won an historical and definitive victory over sin which we share when we trust him as the only source of salvation and freedom. Let us humbly rejoice this Lent that we are called to be free and faithful in him.
Father Edward Mazich, O.S.B.
Artwork: Tentaciones de Cristo by Botticelli