12 March 2011

Dominica Prima Quadragesimæ

First Reading, Genesis 2:7-9; 3:1-7
The breath of life blown into the nostrils is the soul of the formed man. Eden may have been the name of a country but Saint Jerome interprets it to signify pleasure. “The Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east.” This verse in the Latin is translated as: “The Lord God had planted a paradise of pleasure from the beginning.” Saint Jerome’s interpretation of Eden to signify “pleasure” comes into play here; but notice the difference at the end of that verse: “in the east” from the American liturgy’s translation and “from the beginning” which is the Latin Vulgate’s translation. The ancient Hebrew word creating these two very different interpretations is “mikedem”. Some interpreters understood it to mean “towards the east”. The Septuagint is in agreement with that interpretation. Saint Jerome, however, along with many ancient interpreters understood it to mean “old” or “everlasting” or “from ancient times” which led to the “from the beginning” interpretation. The exact location of Eden is unknown: East of Palestine, Armenia and Babylon are only a few of the scholarly conjectures. Some have even theorized that Eden still exists and is the place where Enoch and Elijah were taken until Christ’s glorious Ascension into heaven. According to Sacred Scripture, Enoch walked with God and was seen no more because God took him (cf. Genesis 5:24). And Elijah was taken to heaven in a fiery chariot (cf. 2 Kings 2:11). The “tree of life” is understood literally as a tree in which its fruits would keep man in a constant state of good health and thus man would never die. Prophetically, it is the Cross of Christ. The “tree of the knowledge of good and evil” in which the serpent lured our first parents into thinking it supplied superior knowledge, has been defined as a fig tree or an apple tree. Of course, it’s impossible to know for certain but whatever it was, it most likely was the only one of its kind in the Garden of Eden. What the tree of knowledge did supply was knowledge of evil, which before eating of its forbidden fruits our first parents were uninformed. It would be difficult to say that the woman succumbed to temptation in the same sense that we define temptation. We know that what waits on the other side of temptation is not good for us, spiritually unhealthy and in some cases downright evil. But the woman could not have known this at this point because she had no knowledge of evil and could not have suspected that the serpent was up to no good. One thing we learn from the very first book of the bible is that Satan is more acquainted with the ways and word of God than we are and thus is able to pervert it and twist it to fit his own diabolical plan. Saint Bernard, using this story from Genesis, asks us to reflect on this question: “Placed between God and the devil, whom shall we yield our assent?” The plan of the serpent is not to say that God lied about the tree of knowledge because to the woman that would be unthinkable. It would also be evil to have such thoughts and she has no knowledge of evil. Instead, the ploy of the serpent is to suggest to the woman that she misunderstood what God was saying to her. We hear Satan’s twisting of the word of God today by suggesting to us that we’re misinterpreting Scripture by our understanding of the Real Presence, for example. As soon as the man and the woman ate the fruit their eyes were opened and they realized that they were naked. Being naked is not evil but what is interpreted from this is that suddenly the two became filled with the intense craving known as lust. English poet and scholar John Milton (1608-1674), in his epic poem titled, “Paradise Lost” describes humanity’s fall from grace with these words: “She gave him of that fair enticing fruit, with liberal hand he scrupled not to eat: Against his better knowledge; not deceived, but fondly overcome with female charm. Earth trembled from her entrails, as again in pangs, and nature gave a second groan; sky lured and muttering thunder, some sad drops wept at completing of the mortal sin.”

Second Reading, Romans 5:12-19
Our physical connection with Adam brings us sin and death; our spiritual bond with Christ brings us salvation and eternal life. Adam’s fall is the cause of our sin and death; Christ’s redemption is the cause of our salvation and eternal life. While our destiny of sin and death because of one man’s fall might seem unfair, it would then be equally unfair to say that we deserve salvation and eternal life because of one Man’s Sacrifice. Perhaps it’s best understood to say that Adam’s fall was like a contagious disease which spread to all humanity; and Christ’s Sacrifice was the antidote. This whole scenario does make the body of Christ theology more easily understood as we can see from the very beginning that we’re all connected. To make the case for original sin, Saint Paul uses history from the time of Adam to Moses whereby everyone born into the world died; but until the Law of Moses individual sin was never accounted for. Therefore, all eventually die because all were conceived and born in sin. Adam is the beginning; Christ is a new beginning. Adam brought an end to paradise; Christ restored it. Saint John Chrysostom reminds us that we have been exalted to the dignity of being the brothers and sisters of Christ, the Son of God, and are made joint heirs with Him; and so by the grace of Christ we have a greater dignity in this world, and we shall be exalted to a greater and more eminent degree of glory in the Kingdom of His glory for all eternity.

Gospel, Saint Matthew 4:1-11
The Spirit Who made an appearance at Christ’s Baptism now leads Him into the desert to be tempted by the devil. The desert is the devil’s playground and Christ is led there to confront him on his own turf. Desert hermits know very well from experience that there are many temptations to overcome in the silence and solitude of the desert; but they also know that with God’s help they can overcome those temptations and become closer and more intimate with the Almighty. Our desert is anywhere we choose to sit in solitude to be with God. There are many temptations there to overcome as well. Silence and solitude invites distractions but they can be overcome once it is understood that solitude does not mean being alone -- but instead, being alone with God, the Victor over all unnecessary distractions. Our Lord’s first temptation deals with His forty day fast which our Lenten fast is modeled after. Here our Lord is fulfilling an Old Testament prefigurement when Moses went up Mount Sinai for forty days and forty nights and neither ate bread nor drank water (cf. Exodus 34:28). It is Elijah’s experience that may actually prompt the devil’s temptation because Elijah ate and drank while walking in the strength of that food for forty days and forty nights to Mount Horeb (cf. 1 Kings 19:8). We might be able to conclude that the devil heard the Voice at Christ’s Baptism proclaiming Jesus as God’s Son (cf. Saint Matthew 3:17) because the devil immediately addresses Christ by saying: ‘If you are the Son of God…’ God’s Incarnation at this point might very well be as much of a mystery to the devil as it is to us; and thus he seeks to tempt our Lord into displaying His divine Power. Later on in His ministry Jesus will multiply loaves of bread for the multitudes (cf. Saint Matthew 14:19-21) but here refuses to perform such a miracle for His own need. The devil tries to persuade Jesus to turn stones into bread. This is another indication that the evil one was hanging around during Christ’s Baptism because just before His plunge into the Jordan, John the Baptist was proclaiming to the Pharisees and Sadducees that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from the stones (cf. Saint Matthew 3:9). Jesus passes the test of His first temptation by quoting from Deuteronomy 8 [verse 3]. The First Reading’s Commentary mentions that Satan is well-acquainted with Scripture. And since Jesus used the sacred texts to escape the first temptation, the devil’s next strategic move, then, is to throw another temptation at Jesus by quoting Scripture. The evil one tries to get Jesus to throw Himself down from the parapet of the temple because Psalm (90) 91 [verses 11-12] states that God’s angels will support Him. Jesus fights back with more Scripture from Deuteronomy 6 [verse 16]: “You shall not tempt the Lord your God.” The devil’s final temptation is an attempt to entice Jesus into worshipping him by offering all the kingdoms of the world. Satan’s deceitfulness really comes to the forefront here since the world’s kingdoms are not his to give. He is sometimes referred to as the “prince of this world” but that refers only to the evil that exists in the world. Jesus finally says: “Get away, Satan! It is written: ‘The Lord, your God, shall you worship and Him alone shall you serve”’ (Deuteronomy 6:13). Theologically, because Jesus is God He is incapable of sin and is without original sin. And so, He cannot be tempted from within by concupiscence, a consequence of original sin. Even though He could not be tempted on the same level as our lower nature, He could be tempted by exterior suggestion, meaning that Satan’s temptations can be introduced to Christ’s senses, imagination and His ability to reason or discern. His reasoning and judgment, however, cannot be in error because He is God. The reason our Lord even allows Satan to approach Him is to teach us that even the most pious of souls are prone to temptation and consequently instructs us how to firmly deal with temptation. He also brings Himself as close to our human experience as His sinless Nature would allow and thus is able to sympathize with us.