This Lent, which tree in the garden are you eating from?

Listen to mp3 file
1st Sunday of Lent, Year A: March 13, 2011
Gen 2:7-9, 3:1-7; Ps 51; Rom 5:12-19; Matt 4:1-11

Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert and he fasted for forty days and forty nights. This past Wednesday we were led by the Spirit to begin our own period of 40 days: called Quadragesima in Latin, meaning 40 or 40th; or Lent in English.

And we began it with the imposition of ashes. We all got to remember again just how light ashes are; how easy to blow them into the air or spill them. How dirty they are and easy to smudge. And we also got to hear again those words: “Remember, man, you are dust and to dust you will return.”

In our first reading, we heard, “The Lord God formed man out of the clay of the ground.” Many translations render this as “dust”: The Lord formed man out of the dust of the ground and blew into his nostrils the breath of life. What a thrilling sentence that is! For where, just a moment before, there had been only clay or dust, not unlike those ashes we were using—now there is life! Shining, breathing life—such as only God can give!

And this is a human being he has created: with intelligence that can reason and know and understand; and a will that is free to choose and to love; with creativity, and the potential for so many virtues; and a capacity to give and to receive.

For we are the only creature he made who has a material, physical body, infused by this kind of rational soul. What a gift to be alive! Made in the image and likeness of God! [Gen 1:26-27] And placed in the garden, to cultivate and care for it; with the tree of life in the middle of the garden. How wondrous, this gift of life.

And how quickly it all turned dull and flat for Adam and Eve. How quickly they turned away from the tree of life, and instead sought out the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, which Eve now called “the tree in the middle of the garden.” And it was not knowledge as appreciative embrace that she and Adam were after; it was knowledge as control, as a way to enforce their will. It was not until 1597 A.D. that Sir Francis Bacon wrote, “Knowledge is power”; but Adam and Eve already thought so all the way back in the garden.

They rejected what was given, and took what was not. They turned away from the free gift of life to grasp at taking knowledge as power. And inside they died that day. They shriveled up into gnarled, dried-out husks of what they had once been.

We might say that they became addicted. For we know what addiction looks like: when someone becomes enslaved to something that they don’t need and isn’t even good for them. But the addiction turns their priorities upside down so that they become their own worst enemy, giving away all that they truly need in order to get this thing that is killing them—but has them hooked. And we don’t ever want to become like that. And we warn our children and relatives and friends: don’t go down that road!

But do we? Adam and Eve pushed aside Life in order to try to take Knowledge as Power. And what is it that especially characterizes our culture right now? Scientific knowledge, applied, especially in all forms of technology. Consider how many devices we have today that involve a video screen—from big to medium to small—with some sort of keys or buttons to give it commands. How much time do we spend using one of those? And what does it look like to see someone else using one of those? Whether texting on a cell phone; or using an iPhone or BlackBerry; or playing a video game; or tapping on a computer; or zoned out in front of a plasma TV: Is this life? It probably feels like being in control; but is it? Is it life? Or is it being shriveled up inside?

And we can ask the same questions about non-technological things.

  • What about ways of relating to people to control or manipulate? Cutting them down to put ourselves up? Or ignoring them when they need us? Manipulating their painful areas; or their desires?
  • What about relationships that are just wrong and sinful?
  • What about jobs that take us away from our families? Or involve doing shady harm to people? Or where we take wages or payment that we don’t really deserve?
  • What little projects keep us so busy that we can’t make time for family, or prayer, or other good things?

When we are thinking of what to give up for Lent, what things, if someone suggested them, would make us say: “Are you crazy? I can’t give that up! I couldn’t live without it!”

Really? Is it really life that it’s giving you? Or is it some poor substitute that shrivels you? That promises you control but gives you a sad slavery instead? Which tree in the garden are you actually eating from? The tree of life? Or the other one?

St. Paul tells us in our second reading:

Through one man sin entered the world, and through sin, death, and thus death came to all men, inasmuch as all sinned…

But the gift is not like the transgression. For if by the transgression of the one, the many died, how much more did the grace of God and the gracious gift of the one man Jesus Christ overflow for the many…

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 Jesus Christ.

Or as St. John writes in his Gospel: In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. [John 1:3-4]

And we see this in action in the temptations narrated in our Gospel reading today. Unlike Adam and Eve, he was not fooled by the devil.

  • He would not seek to control the stones to make bread that he could take. But instead he would be ready to receive every word given him from the mouth of his heavenly Father.
  • He would not seek to throw himself down from the parapet of the temple, and so manipulate the Father into miraculously saving him in mid-air. He would not put the Father to the test.
  • And he would not try to take control of all the kingdoms of the world by worshiping Satan. He would remain obedient to the Father, even to death; and God would highly exalt him and bestow on him the name above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth … to the glory of God the Father. [Phil 2:9-11]

This then is why we follow our Lord out into the desert for 40 days during Lent.

  • To turn away from that other tree that falsely promises us knowledge and power and control; and turn again to the tree of life, and be filled with what we really need.
  • To stop taking, and rest in the quiet, and receive what the Lord has been trying to give us for so long.
  • To remove festering sin from our lives and bury it in Christ’s ocean of mercy in the sacrament of confession; and please do go to confession during this season!
  • And to set aside, if only temporarily, those good things that we have let ourselves get too attached to—

so that we remember that it is the tree of life that is in the in the middle of the garden. Where the gracious gift of the one man Jesus Christ overflow for the many. And the desert turns out to be the garden, after all.

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