Thoughts on the First Sunday in Lent

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The Season of Lent begins with calls from prophets to turn our hearts back to the Holy One who creates us; Jesus beckons to us in the Ash Wednesday text to lay aside all our pretexts of piety and focus on fine tuning the strings of our hearts—slowly bringing the minor discordant melody we play on a day-to-day basis back in line with the song that God planted in our hearts so long ago.

In each of the weeks to come, the Church is called to listen closer and closer to where we may be out of tune with the song that is played by the Lord of the Dance, and the first Sunday in Lent starts us off by pulling us into the narratives of Temptation.

They are both complicated texts—not because they were written to confuse, but because we have become so familiar with the story of Adam and Eve and the Serpent and the story of Jesus and Satan in the wilderness that it’s hard to not hear centuries of interpretation shouting over the simplicity of the text.

Genesis begins by telling us why Adam is placed in the Garden.  Adam is put in Eden to till and keep it.  He is there to ‘abad — to serve — and shamar — to preserve or protect. The first human is planted in the garden to be the one trusted by God to look after this Creation.

Which leads me to wonder, what does it mean to be servants of Creation? Is it simply a question of ecology and conservation or do we also find in this purpose of tilling and keeping the beginning of a mandate to be our sister’s/brother’s keeper?

But that’s just one of the many rabbit holes I can’t jump down today…

Rolling Stone magazine calls the band Twenty-One Pilots “one of the hardest-to-categorize musical acts in recent memory.” (article) Their song “Stressed Out” (which won a Grammy early this year) is an anthem of sorts for the generation that has recently come of age — speaking of an experience pretty much every generation that’s come of age knows all too well.

I was told when I get older all my fears would shrink

but now I’m insecure and I care what people think.

Wish we could turn back time, to the good ol’ days

when our Momma would sing us to sleep, but now we’re stressed out

We used to play pretend, give each other different names,

We would build a rocket ship and then we’d fly it far away,

Used to dream of outer space but now they’re laughing at our face,

Saying, “Wake up, you need to make money.”

When we’re children we dream of being adults and all the adventures that will come our way.  I dreamt of being an archaeologist and digging in ruins and sifting through dirt to find fossilized remains—some dream of space travel and going to the moon, I had a dream of being Luke Skywalker (so maybe that’s not a dream of adulthood…) but we dream of not being children.  And then somewhere along the way we lose our innocence and we begin to experience small tastes of being a grown up and then, before we know it we’re singing, “Wish we could turn back time, to the good ol’ days when our Momma would sing us to sleep, but now we’re stressed out.”

And maybe, just maybe, that’s what God was trying to save our ancestors from with regards to eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

One pastor in reflecting on our Genesis text writes, “Genesis 2-3 suggests that knowledge, a necessity for human life, is something that is acquired painfully…when humans understand what it means to be fully human—that is, when they have complete knowledge—the realities of life come into full relief in all their complexity and difficulty. Knowledge is both enlightening and painful.” (Frank Yamada, “Commentary on Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7”)

Knowing good and evil connotes perception and understanding.  When we’re young, when we’re in a state of innocence of life, we really only know good.  What do I mean by that?  I mean when you’re a kid you are cared for, you know play and happiness—many children do, anyway.  And when they don’t we’re gut twisted in compassion and sympathy because children aren’t meant to know pain and suffering.

Our ancestral parents, before they succumbed to temptation, did not know pain and suffering.  They knew the garden, and they knew God, and they knew life. But that tree just sat there with the prohibition against eating—with the paradise version of caution tape all around it—like that box of Girl Scout cookies that’s stashed in the pantry or in the freezer (the box or two that are put away during Lent) that you try so hard not to think about but all you do is think about them—that’s the tree.  And if it wasn’t whispering on its own, there was the crafty serpent—the subtle one—who says, “Oh, you can’t even TOUCH it? How absurd! God’s just paranoid, don’t you know? God doesn’t want any competition. But you should eat it; really, you should. It’s, shall we say, an eye opening experience.”

There were two trees in the center of the garden. One was the tree of life, the other was the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The tree of life is mentioned earlier in our chapter, and then isn’t mentioned again until the end of chapter three, when God says, “See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now he might reach out his hand and take from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever.”  The tree of life wasn’t an issue, there was no prohibition against eating from that tree; it wasn’t an issue until after they knew good and evil.

The subtle one doesn’t offer life as a temptation; it’s knowledge that’s tempting. Or the idea of knowledge at any rate, because the idea of something, or someone, is always more appealing than the actual having of that thing. It’s a bit like having a dog: the idea of a dog is awesome, but then you’re lying in bed on a Saturday morning and you want to sleep in—and the kids have finally reached an age of relative independence—but the dog is scratching at the kennel and you realize, “He’ll never be independent, will he?” and your spouse says, “Nope.  And he’s your dog.”

That’s what knowledge, especially the knowledge of good and evil, is like.  “The promise of the serpent could mean they will understand the difference between good and bad and/or mean they will have a broad range of experiences, both good and bad.” (Judy Fentress-Williams, Feasting on the Word, Year A: Vol. 2) Wouldn’t it be great if we knew the difference without actually having to experience the difference? But the truth of the matter is that we know best what is good and what is evil because we have been on the receiving end of those things.

It’s knowledge of good and evil that they choose—and their eyes are opened and their first experience isn’t an experience of good, it is an experience of shame. Their eyes are opened and they are painfully aware of their differences and it’s no longer “at last bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh;” it’s, “You don’t look anything like me” and “what other differences might there be?” We should hide those differences and cover ourselves and be ashamed.

But that’s not our only temptation story at the beginning of Lent.  The subtle one comes back when Jesus is in the wilderness and he tries the same old trick. He tempts Jesus with selfish ambition. “Use what you have for yourself,” he whispers.  And it’s a crafty, subtle thing to do.  “You’re God’s own son, make these stones into bread.  I know you’re hungry; eat! Manga, manga.”

It’s funny how our hunger is the most primal temptation; it’s hunger that trips up our first ancestors and it’s hunger that the subtle one pulls first on Jesus. Physiological needs are the bottom of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs pyramid—it’s the most basic thing we seek—food and water.  After that comes safety—which is the second temptation of Jesus, interestingly enough.

Maybe that’s what fasting and abstinence have been longstanding parts of the Lenten journey.  We pay attention to our hunger—and if we practice abstinence or fasting—in those moments when we feel our belly whine, we turn to God in prayer or in study.  And when we feel our belly whine, we are reminded of our sisters and brothers—we are reminded of those children who should not suffer, but do.

So maybe it’s no surprise that it’s a Holy Meal that Jesus gives to the Church as a reminder of identity and redemption.  If it is through food that we are alienated from God and from one another—it can be by food that we find that tangible reminder of our union with God and heal the alienation we experience with one another.

I pray that this season may be a time for us all to draw nearer to God; I pray that this season may be a time when we learn more about those who suffer and recognize that our well-being is tied to theirs, remembering that we are our brothers and sisters keepers.  May we seek and embrace the truths that will set ourselves and the Church free to live out the fullness of God’s mission.

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