Today is traditionally called Quadragesima Sunday, the ancient beginning of the 40-day season of Lent (called Quadragesima in Latin). Of course, our contemporary Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, but Ash Wednesday and the four extra days that follow were a later addition to the original Lenten season, which actually still starts counting the 40 days today, ending on the Thursday before Easter. This Sunday’s importance in the liturgical calendar is highlighted by the fact that the Roman stational church for today is the Basilica of Saint John Lateran, the “Mother Church” of Rome, the Pope’s official “cathedral.” Dedicated to Saint John the Baptist, Rome’s Lateran Basilica seems an especially appropriate place to recall Christ’s 40-day fast in the desert!
But before we get to the desert, the Church today takes us all the way back to the beginning – to the garden. The Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and placed there the man whom he had formed – formed, incidentally, out of the clay of the ground, the same ground out of which God made the various trees and, a little later, the various wild animals and various birds of the air. The story is a familiar one. So we are apt to let it gently pass over us (in one ear and out the other, as the saying goes). But its presence and prominence in this Lenten liturgy suggests that would be a mistake. It’s a story, to be sure, but more like a meditation, a study in story-form of who we are and what we’re about.
In this story that says so much, we learn that our very life itself is a gift. So too is the world, which we are not the owners of, but more like tenants. And, if our changing climate has highlighted how the damage we humans have done has made the world less of a garden and more like a desert, the story obviously has something to say about that too!
In the middle of the garden grows a tree – the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, which we soon learn is a kind of boundary, not to be touched, let alone eaten from. It’s a reminder that we human beings did not make the world, we don’t own it, and we are not supposed to be completely in charge.
Neither is the smart, cunning serpent, the tempter, who acts as if he were in charge and whom tradition treats as a figure for the devil – the same Satan who will tempt Jesus in the desert, pretending there to be in charge of all the kingdoms of the world in their magnificence.
The devil is a liar, a subtle, cunning liar, a figure for our time if ever there was one. if we listen to him, then – as Pope Francis warns us in his Message for Lent – ‘we risk sinking into the abyss of absurdity, and experiencing hell here on earth, as all too many tragic events in the personal and collective human experience sadly bear witness.’
Superficially, what the serpent says to Eve is true. Adam and Eve do not die – at least not right away. And their eyes will be opened to know what is good and what is evil. But, when what the tempter promises actually happens, then we quickly see how well we have been deceived!
True Adam and Eve did not die right away, but die they did. Through one man, Saint Paul says, sin entered the world, and through sin, death, and thus death came to all. The same ground we once came from, originally filled with the Creator’s breath of life, to that same ground we must, on account of sin, return now in death – as we were so famously reminded ritually this past Ash Wednesday, when we were told again: Remember, you are dust, and to dust you will return!
As so often happens with our limited Lectionary, the 1st reading ends abruptly. Adam and Eve try to repair the damage they have done by making themselves clothes – in effect hiding from one another. They will soon also try to hide from God, for the tempter had taught them to think of God as an enemy, as an oppressor. But, as the story continues, God does not desert them nor abandon them to their guilt. That’s good news. And it looks ahead, looks forward, to the even bigger and better news Saint Paul proclaims in the 2nd reading. 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.
Thanks to Adam’s sin, the garden has become a desert. That is where we find ourselves now, and so is where we encounter the devil – just as Jesus did. But, because Jesus has himself already defeated the devil, our own victory over Satan is already in sight. For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so, through the obedience of the one, the many will be made righteous.
Every Lent, the Church invites us to break our routine and do something we usually seem so reluctant to do – to take an honest and critical look at ourselves - at where we are, where we are going, where we would like to be going, and how hope to get there.
Homily for the 1st Sunday of Lent, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville TN, March 1, 2020.