Today is traditionally known as Quadragesima Sunday, the ancient beginning of the 40-day liturgical season of Lent (in Latin Quadragesima). Of course, in the present Roman Rite Lent now begins on the increasingly popular Ash Wednesday, but Ash Wednesday and the four following days were a later (already more than a thousand years old) addition to the (now increasingly less popular) 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 [Genesis 2:7-9; 3:1-7]. 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, which we are apt to allow to 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 where we've gone wrong.
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. And, if our contemporary world environment is becoming, because of our greedy and destructive behavior, much less of a garden and more like a desert, the story has something to say about that too!
In the middle of that original garden grew a tree – the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, which the story suggests served as a kind of boundary, not to be touched, let alone eaten from. It is a reminder that we human beings didn’t make the world, we don’t own it, and we are not completely in charge.
Neither, for that matter, 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 thus a liar, albeit a subtle, cunning liar, who lied to Adam and Eve as he will later lie to Jesus in the desert. Like the seductions of modernity and of our modern politics, the devil is indeed a subtle, cunning liar. Superficially, of course, 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 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 dramatically, ritually reminded this past Ash Wednesday. (In case the ashes themselves weren’t clear enough as a symbol of death, we were wisely told: Remember, you are dust, and to dust you will return!)
As so often unfortunately happens with our limited Lectionary, the first 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 has taught them to think of God as an enemy, as an oppressor. But, so 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 second Sunday scripture reading [Romans 5:12-19]. 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.
Unfortunately, far fewer will likely hear today's Gospel of the devil's lies to Jesus in the desert [Matthew 4:1-11] than probably received ashes four days ago. Yet I remain convinced that one of the (possibly many) reasons for the popularity of those ashes is in its shock value as a statement of the truth in a world dominated by lies and liars. Back when I used to preach on Ash Wednesday, I rhetorically used to ask what made those ashes so popular and answered my own question with some variation on the theme, "because it is true." In this “information age” when we are all bombarded on all sides with disinformation, with images and words we cannot even begin to sort out, in this politicized age of “alternative facts” and just plain old-fashioned lies, not to mention the infamous, political Big Lie about the 2020 election and all the lies which that has spawned, in this therapeutic age when we are routinely fed false narratives of human happiness and fulfillment, for once at least we are being told something that is simply and unambiguously TRUE.
We live in a world which prizes safety, comfort, and feeling good about oneself - three lies that are ubiquitous even in religion. Yet, each year, Lent, with its sobering message of mortality and fragility and its solemn challenge to repentance, somehow still cuts through the poisonous political platitudes and psychobabble of our age to speak spiritual truth against the powerful lie of our narcissistic self-absorption.
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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