Saturday, March 4, 2017

The Nave of Lent

Ash Wednesday and the three following ferial days post cineres are a later addition to the original 6-week Roman Lent, which begins this Quadragesima Sunday, with its station at the Pope's "cathedral" in Rome. the papal basilica of Saint John Lateran (Photo). If Ash Wednesday and the three following days are sometimes imagined as the "vestibule" of Lent, then the four weeks which begin this Sunday, can accordingly be considered as representing the "nave" of Lent. 

The modern popularity of Ash Wednesday easily overshadows the original significance of this Sunday as the original beginning of Lent, but the day's ancient association with the "election" of catechumens for initiation at Easter, revived in the modern Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, still identifies a major transitional moment - for those who are disposed to take notice. (In the traditional Roman Rite, this distinction was even clearer, inasmuch as many of Lent's proper features - the hymns, chapters, responses, and responsories in the Divine Office, for example - began on this Sunday, not on Ash Wednesday. as they now do) 

Again, this Sunday’s historic importance in the liturgical calendar is highlighted by the fact that the Roman stational church 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, the obvious model for our own much more modest 40 days of fasting and prayer!

But before we even get to the desert, the Church 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 it’s 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 life itself is a gift. So too is the world, which we are not the owners of, but more like tenants, renters. And, if - as each year gets hotter and the climate changes more erratically, while climate-change deniers pursue short-term profit at the cost of long-term risk - this world, in which we are tenants, is itself becoming less like a garden and more like a desert, the biblical story has something to say about that too! 

The original biblical garden is traditionally associated with somewhere in what is now Iraq - a place that in the actual present practically epitomizes everything that is the opposite of the biblical garden. As this world, which God has rented to us, deteriorates increasingly ("progressively"?) from garden to desert, everything about the Genesis story seems even more, rather than less, relevant to our situation today.

In the middle of the original garden grew a tree – the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, which the story presents as a kind of boundary, not to be touched, let alone eaten from.  It’s a reminder of limitations - that we human beings didn’t make our world, that we don’t own it, and that we are not completely in charge.

Neither, however, is the smart, cunning serpent, the tempter, who always 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.

Like the seductions of modernity and of our modern politics, the devil is a liar, but a subtle, cunning liar. Superficially, what the serpent says to Eve is true. Adam and Eve will 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, they did not die right away. But die they eventually would, as we will too. 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 again so dramatically reminded in the ritual of this past Ash Wednesday. In case the ashes themselves weren’t clear enough as a symbol of death, we were also told it in words: Remember, you are dust, and to dust you will return!

As sadly so often happens with our impoverished 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 abandon them to their guilt. That’s the good news. And it looks ahead, looks forward, to the even bigger and better news Saint Paul proclaims in Sunday's 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 where we encounter the devil – just as Jesus did. But because Jesus has himself not just encountered but 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.

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