Sunday, March 5, 2017

Of Trees and Temptations - Homily for the 1st Sunday of Lent (A)

One of the great joys of my priesthood is to be the director of the RCIA program here at St. Joe’s. The RCIA program is for those who wish to learn more about the Catholic faith and discern whether they wish to enter the Church. And we praise God that over 30 of our brothers and sisters will join us in the Eucharist for the first time at the Easter Vigil. (May we have 60 next year!)

During our months together, the RCIA participants ask a whole host of questions. And I’ve found that many questions are asked about today’s first reading from the book of Genesis. One of the popular questions I’ve heard is: “Why did God make the tree and then tell Adam and Eve not to eat from it?” As parents and grandparents, we know that if we have cookie jar and tell our children not to eat from it, what will they do five minutes later? They will be eating from the cookie jar! So, why this tree?

First, we must note that the tree is not evil. God does not make bad things. Even the serpent—he was once a good angel, Lucifer, who chose evil and who subsequently “devolved” (that’s what sin does). God makes everything good—this tree is good. But what God has done is used it as a means to teach Adam and Eve about the nature of Love. Love, if it is really love, must choose; it must choose between self-centeredness and self-sacrifice. God, when He makes the tree, is giving Adam and Eve the space to choose what kind of Love they will have: an obedient, self-sacrificial love or a disobedient, self-serving love.

Notice: do Adam and Eve have to eat from the tree to know the difference between good and evil? No. God has already told them: eat from all of those trees over there (obedience)—that is good; do not eat from this tree here (disobedience)—that is bad. He has already given them the wisdom. They don’t need to grasp for the fruit to have wisdom—they already have been given the gift!

But that’s the trick of the devil: he convinces Adam and Eve that God is holding something back.  That’s how the devil often gets us, isn’t it? Convinces us that God is not a good God, that He’s keeping something good or better from us. And so, we do our own thing and grasp for something—often at the expense of love.

So, why did God create the Tree? For love. To give us a chance to love. And, here’s the kicker: not only to love Him, but also each other; because, if we can’t trust God, then the love and the trust between spouses will quickly fail—which is precisely what happens to Adam and Eve. They cover themselves because they are now afraid—of what? Of each other. Of being used. Of not being loved.

*          *          *

This brings us to a second, often-asked question: Whose fault was it—Adam or Eve’s?

(With a smile) It was all Eve’s fault. *Closes Gospel book*

No. There’s more to it than that. Remember: who was with Eve? Adam was. And what mission did God give Adam? To care for everything in the Garden. This included Eve. Yes, Adam and Eve are equals, but God gave Adam the strength to care for Eve—knowing that there would be danger lurking about.

That danger came when the devil went after Eve—as the devil often does: attacking the woman. Adam was supposed to fight for his love, the one that was “bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh!” But what did Adam do? Nothing. He was quiet. And when the husband, the man with the strength, is quiet and doesn’t use his strength to fight for the family, the wife gets anxious, she grasps for what she things will make her secure. “I’ve gotta have this,” she says. And the devil’s got her.

You see, when we love something, we have to fight for it. In our culture, we have divorced loving and fighting—people think love happens without a fight. That’s naïve. We’re going to have to fight if we are truly going to love.

That’s the point of the second reading. Through the disobedience of one man, Adam, sin entered the world (notice where Paul puts the blame: on Adam!). But through the obedience of the other man, Jesus, life entered the world and forgiveness (“acquittal”). In other words: whereas Adam did not fight the devil, Jesus did. Jesus fought for us. He fought for His bride. Jesus stood up to the temptation. And why? Because of love. Jesus loves His Father and He loves us. So Jesus fought for us. Forty days in the desert: fighting the pain of hunger, fighting the urge to give in, fighting against the devil himself. “The Lord is a warrior. The Lord is His name!” (Ex 15:3).

*          *          *

What does this mean for us? In Lent, we are invited to enter into the battle for love. We have opportunities for fasting, for sacrifice, for giving, for praying—and in all of that there is the choice, the battle, to fight for what and for whom we love. Just like Adam and Eve, God has given us this blessed time of Lent—just like that tree—so that we may choose between self-centeredness and self-sacrifice. To love or not to love.

There will be temptations in this, just like there are throughout the year. In these, perhaps it may be good to become like Mary, too—Mary who is the New Eve—who also does battle. Have you ever noticed how many statues of Mary have her stomping on the head of the serpent? That’s taking from Genesis 3:15, where the Scriptures prophesy how the Mother of God will crush the head of the serpent.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I have never tried to crush the head of a snake. I’d probably use a shovel. Mary is depicted using her bare feet. Which means that she is doing this quickly—you can’t crush the head of a snake daintily. Otherwise, you get bitten. Mary crushes the tempter quickly, with force! *bam!* That’s Jesus’ mother. That’s the one who taught Him from her lap. If the Lord is a warrior, I have a hunch that to some degree, His mother is, too. Kind, gentle, mild—yes. But when it comes to the devil, Mary’s not gonna have any of it.

That’s what we need to be this Lent and, really, whenever we face temptation.

Because, when the devil comes bartering for our soul, we must remember that there are only two outcomes: life or death, heaven or hell, good or evil. We can’t mess around with the devil. Think of it this way, if someone came to you saying, “Hey, do this for me—do this and I will pick a nice spot for you in hell. You know—with the fires and the grinding of teeth and the wailing and the anger and loneliness and stench.” Who among us would say, “Yeah, let me think about that for a moment… that kinda sounds like a good idea….” No! We would say, “You’re crazy! Get away from me!”

But, let’s be honest: when we entertain temptation, we are seriously pondering that this hell is a good idea. This is why sin is stupid. (That’s my definition—that’s not Magisterial…) Sin is stupid.

This is why the devil coats the evil with some kind of good. The devil, for the most part, doesn’t just simply come out and say “Deny Jesus. Deny Jesus and make me king.” No, the devil is more subtle. The devil will say something about how God understands, and that it isn’t so bad. Just a little bit of doubt.

We have to fight against this.

If we are not actively fighting against temptation, we will start buying the devil’s lies. If we are not crushing his head, then we will start to doubt. We will start to think that God is holding something back. And we’ll grow resentful and bitter—especially when we are told that we can’t do something. And we’ll grasp—we’ll make our own way—and we’ll rationalize it by saying that God doesn’t see, because God doesn’t love us. And then that becomes God doesn’t matter. And, then: God doesn’t exist. So, we’ll establish our own way. And we’ll make our own gods. And when those don’t fill us, we’ll make ourselves god.

Which is what the devil promised: “if you eat… you will become like gods.”

And therein is the greatest lie of all. Because we already were. We were already like gods. Adam and Eve were made so as to never die; they were eternal; they could love like the angels and share the mind and heart of God. A share of divinity had already been given them. But they doubted it. And so they lost it.

*          *          *

We have been given that share—we just have to receive! Which means we have to battle the urge to grasp. That urge to doubt and cry out: “Lord, why are you keeping this from me?” “Why can’t I have just this one thing? Just this once?” We sometimes make it a holy crusade: “Lord, all this time I served you and never did you give me this one thing…” (that’s the older brother of the Prodigal Son, by the way).

But we must believe that God is good. That He’s not holding anything back. If there would have been a greater gift that Jesus, God would have given it. But this is the greatest gift.

In fact, do you remember how many named trees there were in the Garden? There were two: The Tree of Knowledge and the Tree of Life. We’ve talked about the first one; what about the second? Adam and Eve were kicked out of the Garden before they could eat from the Tree of Life.

We, however, get to eat from this tree. The Tree is the Cross and the Fruit of this Tree of Life is Jesus. On the night before Jesus died, He gave us this fruit in the Eucharist—His body and blood, the Bread of Life (“whoever eats will live forever”). And that’s perfect when we think about it: Jesus undoes the first, the Original, Sin (which was accomplished by eating) by giving us something to eat: namely, Himself. His body and blood, soul and divinity, to be united to our body, blood, soul, and humanity—to elevate our humanity, by grace, to His divinity. In this way, we really do become “like gods.”

Do you see? Jesus has loved us to the end! He has held nothing back. He loves you! Come, let us love Him in return!

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