Today is the first Sunday of Lent. Lent is a period of penance, reflection and renewal. It is a preparation for Easter where we partake in the Paschal Mysteries of our redemption which lead to our salvation if we remain firm. Today's readings deal with temptation, the fall of man, the public work of redemption, and victory by depending on God.
The first reading is from Genesis which speaks of how God formed man from the clay of the Earth and breathed life into him. We were reminded of this a few days ago on Ash Wednesday (see: http://www.sacerdotus.com/2017/03/ash-wednesday-2017.html). Atheists love to criticize this story. They harass Christians and claim that the story of Genesis disproves God as a mere myth. This is of course nonsense. The book of Genesis is poetry. It is allegory. The chapters on creation were not meant to be literal history or a science text. However, some similarities do exist with the theory of Evolution. God says, "Let there be light." Ironically, photons were the first particles to appear after the "big bang." Photons are light! Moreover, if you read the chronology of the creation account, there is an order to creation, an evolution of creatures.
It continues with the story of how man was placed to live in the Garden of Eden and had access to all, but was warned not to eat of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Eating of the fruit of this tree would bring about death. This was of sin, not the fruit itself (Romans 5:12). Interestingly enough, the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, as well as the Tree of Life, are placed in the middle of the Garden making them more visible and distinct. Here we see how the test of man is played out. I go more into detail on this in my book "Atheism is Stupid" in the "problem of evil" section.
The story continues with the introduction of a serpent who is cunning and very intelligent (Genesis 3:1). This serpent approaches the woman named Eve and proceeds to manipulate her by casting doubt to God's command not to eat of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. He says to her, "Did God really tell you not to eat from any of the trees in the garden?" The woman then gives him an explanation as to what they can and cannot do in regards to eating fruit in the garden. The serpent replies, "You certainly will not die! No, God knows well that the moment you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods who know what is good and what is evil." The argument from the serpent was convincing. The fruit seemed harmless and possibly identical to that of the Tree of Life or any other fruits in the garden. Plus, what's wrong with becoming gods? The woman then took some of its fruit and ate it and then shared it with the man. Immediately they realized that they were naked and sewed fig leaves to make loincloths to cover up.
This story shows how sin entered the world. It shows how temptation plays a big role before we fall into sin. Adam and Eve were told not to eat of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, but they did at the behest of a serpent who is later identified as Satan or the fallen angel Lucifer. We know this serpent to be Satan because man is the only being capable of reasoning and speech. No other animals can reason or talk, so this serpent is another entity who is not human. Since God only created two rational beings, angels and humans, we know that this serpent has to be an angel and can link him to Lucifer because he was cast down from Heaven and was roaming the Earth (Luke 10:18, Revelation 12:4, Job 1:7, 1 Peter 5:8). Satan hates humanity and wants nothing more than for human beings to fail (Wisdom 2:24). He is a liar, the father of lies (John 8:44). All deception in the world comes from Satan. Today, we hear of so many crazy ideas on gender, abortion, marriage and even within Christianity. These come from Satan who twists and uses subterfuge in order to deceive man (James 3:15). We must not give in to these lies of the devil.
The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and how it was placed in the garden tells us that God was testing the first human beings. This makes sense based on the psychology of the human brain. The human brain is set up in a way to pay more attention to things in the center of attention, so to speak. This is called the 'attenuator' in cognitive psychology. The term comes from Attenuation Theory proposed by Anne Marie Treisman, a psychologist and academic at Princeton who posits that our brains focus on things that stand out. When we see a monument or some structure in the middle of everything else we automatically focus attention on it and assume that it is an important thing and become curious about it.
The same can be said of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. The story also shows how human beings will always do the opposite of what they are told. Usually when we are told NOT to do something, this builds up curiosity to to point that we actually do what we were told not to do. We can observe this in children who often "test" their limits by disobeying parents. As adults, this behavior pretty much goes unchanged. In a sense, God was doing the first psychology experiment. In life it is usually the things that bring us harm that appear to be good just like the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.
The Responsorial Psalm is said as a response to the first reading so today's Psalm obviously is from Ps 51 using the refrain, "Be merciful, o Lord, for we have sinned." The Psalm recited today is a song about mercy and contrition. We ask God for mercy; ask Him to cleanse our souls and wash us of our guilt. We admit our failings and recall how God sees our sinful actions. We ask for the joy of salvation despite our failings so that we can continue to praise God with a clean heart. This Psalm is meant to ask God for mercy after reading the first reading about the fall of our first parents. Though the sin of Adam and Eve is not our fault, we inherit its effects. The damage caused by Original Sin opens us up to Actual Sin which is done directly by us and can be Mortal or Venial (Psalm 51:5, Ephesians 2:2, 1 John 5:16-17).
Original sin is then brought up in the second reading from Romans 5:12-19. St. Paul opens up the letter to the Romans by saying, "Brothers and Sisters: Through one man sin entered the world, and through sin, death, and thus death came to all men, inasmuch as all sinned." The rest of the letter goes on to explain how Original Sin brought about the destruction of man. Evil, death, sickness and other anomalies in nature exist because of the disorder that Original Sin brought to the world. However, only one man who is also God has undone this and His name is Christ Jesus. Jesus is the "New Adam" who came to restore creation to what it is supposed to be. Jesus came to do "damage control," so to speak. St. Paul closes the letter by telling us that just like Original Sin, death etc entered the world through one man, so too does grace, holiness and righteousness entered the world through Christ Jesus who is both man and God.
These readings then lead up to the Gospel which is from Matthew 4:1-11 and tells of the story of
Christ's temptation. After Jesus was baptized by St. John the Baptist, He went into the desert for 40 days. The number 40 in the Bible is a symbol meaning preparation, penance or cleansing, and/or a time of trial/test. We read that Jesus is in the desert with no food or drink due to fasting. The tempter, or Satan appears to Him and tells Him, "If you are the Son of God, command that these stones become loaves of bread."
He does this in order to tempt Christ because after fasting 40 days, naturally anyone will be starving and even a slice of bread sounds like an eight course meal. Jesus does not fall for this trick and replies, "It is written: One does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes forth from the mouth of God." In other words, Jesus is saying that while we need food, it is ultimately God who has the final say as to whether or not we live or die. Eating food does not guarantee our lives or existence and can even kill us. It is God who is in control of our existence.
The Gospel account continues with Satan taking Christ to the holy city and placed Him on the parapet of the temple so He could see all from that height. Satan says to Him, "If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down. For it is written: He will command his angels concerning you and with their hands they will support you, lest you dash your foot against a stone." Here Satan is twisting Scripture to his advantage. He is quoting from Psalm 91:11-12 showing that Satan does know the Scriptures well and interprets them in a way that will favor his views; hence, he is the "cunning serpent" mentioned in the first reading. Satan mentions this Psalm in order to test Christ and in a sense, mock God. He is pretty much telling Christ to commit suicide by jumping off a high place since according to Psalm 91, God will send angels to catch Him. Jesus replies, "Again it is written, You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test." Here Christ is correcting the literal interpretation of Satan. God sends angels and intervenes in space at time as His own discretion, not ours. Sometimes we, especially non-believers doubt God's existence when we hear of children dying, or some tragedy occurring which could have been prevented if God sent angels or even intervened directly. However, this is not how it works. We are not the gods of God. We have no right to demand anything from God or have a sense of entitlement.
Lastly, Satan takes Christ to a high mountain and shows Him all the kingdoms of the world and tells Him, "All these I shall give to you, if you will prostrate yourself and worship me." Here Satan is acting like He is some " Don Corleone godfather" of the world and offers Christ power in the form of governments or kingdoms. This ties in to Genesis where the serpent tricks Adam and Eve with his sophistry and eventually "takes" the world. By showing Christ the kingdoms of the world, he is trying to tempt Christ with power. This imagery was adopted in the movie with Keanu Reeves and Al Pacino called, "Devil's Advocate" where Pacino takes Reeves to the roof of a tall building and shows him the "world." Human beings love power. They love attention. Who would refuse the kingdoms of the world? The answer is Jesus. He replies to Satan's offer which Satan thought could not be refused with: "Get away, Satan! It is written: The Lord, your God, shall you worship and Him alone shall you serve." The Devil then left Him be and the angels appeared to assist Jesus.
Let's recap things:
- First, we read of the fall. Adam and Eve listen to a serpent and eat of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.
- Second, the Psalm replies asking God for mercy.
- Third, St. Paul writes that Original Sin entered the world through one man and one man has undone this named Jesus Christ.
- Fourth, the Gospel presents Jesus who is God and man being tempted by the "serpent" who annoys Him and offers Him political power.
Putting all the readings together, we see the links. Adam and Eve messed things up for listening to a serpent. St. Paul reminds us of this and tells us that Christ is the one who came to fix this mess. In the Gospel, we see how the same serpent appears to the "new Adam" and tries to tempt Him but fails. Despite having excellent knowledge of Scripture and the ability to reason, Satan fails. Christ is NOT Adam and Eve. He is not stupid nor naive. Christ is the Son of God, the second person of the Blessed Trinity. Ironically, Satan despite having this great ability to reason as well as knowledge of the Bible and universe, he did not know Jesus was God. This is why he was stalking Christ trying to figure out who this guy was. Satan had no idea who Jesus was and was testing Him to see who He was and if He would fall for the same tricks used to make Adam and Eve fall.
These readings set the stage for Lent. Lent is a period of reflection and renewal. We join Jesus in the desert in prayer and fasting. Satan will eventually show up and stalk each one of us on this 40 day journey. He will tempt us with thoughts that will try to distract us just like he tried to distract Jesus. Satan will present to us all kinds of promises which are lies. Like Christ, we must bear with this annoying character. He is a bug buzzing around trying to annoy us to the point of reacting. We must respond like Christ did with direct rebuttals and dependence on God. Satan is merely a fallen angel. Hollywood likes to present him as this power anti-god type entity who has equal power to God, but is on the side of evil. This is not so. Satan is a creature just like us. Man has the capacity and intelligence to outsmart this being with God's grace. One of the best weapons against Satan is ignoring him. Satan has an inflated ego and thinks of himself as this superior being. He has the power to do minor parlor tricks in nature, but nothing we can't do on our own with our hands or technology. Ignoring him makes him powerless because we are not giving him the credibility he wants us to have in regards to him being this powerful entity.
During this Lent we should pray more and focus on the meaning of fasting and abstaining from meat. We rely totally on God for our existence. Christ reminded Satan of this. The Scriptures remind us that despite man's failings, Christ is there to help him on his feet. Christ has showed that He is smarter and more powerful that the annoying cunning serpent.
Here are some reflections from holy writers:
What does the devil first say? “If you are the Son of God, command that these stones become loaves of bread.” The focus is not upon hunger but divine Sonship. Thinking to cheat him with supposed compliments, the devil suggested, “If you are Son of God,” remaining silent about his hunger in order that he not seem to allege that he indeed was hungry and not upbraiding him for it. For unaware of the greatness of the economy which was unfolding, he supposed hunger to be a reproach to him. So flattering him smoothly, he makes mention of his dignity only.
How then did Christ respond to this? In order to put down the devil’s pride and signify that there was nothing shameful in Jesus’ hunger nor unbecoming to his wisdom, he brings forward precisely the point that the devil had passed over in silence to flatter him. Jesus said, “Man shall not live by bread alone.”
In this way the devil begins his temptation with the necessity of the belly. Mark well the craft of that wicked demon. Note at what precise point he begins his struggling and how well he remembers what he does best. For it was by this same means that he cast out the first man and then encompassed him with thousands of other evils. Now by the same means here he again weaves his deceit: the temptation to indulge the belly. So too even now one may hear many foolish people say their bad words by thousands because of the belly.
— St. John Chrysostom
(344 - 407)
Source: “The Gospel of Matthew, Homily 13.3,” quoted in Manlio Simonetti, ed., Matthew 1–13, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 59.
“Throw yourself down.” It is the devil’s voice by which he desires that everyone should fall down. “Throw yourself,” he says. He is able to persuade, but he cannot cast down. “He will give his angels charge concerning you; and upon their hands they shall bear you up, lest you dash your foot against a stone.” This we read in the ninetieth psalm. Clearly the prophecy here is not about Christ but about a holy man. The devil therefore is a poor interpreter of the Scriptures. Certainly, if he really knew what was written about the Savior, he should have also said what follows in the same psalm against him: “You will tread on the lion and the adder, the young lion and the serpent you will trample underfoot.” Concerning the help of the angels, he speaks as though to a feeble man. Concerning his being trampled underfoot, he is silent like an artful dodger.
Jesus said to him, “It is written further, ‘You shall not tempt the Lord your God.’” The false arrows from the devil’s own scriptures he breaks with the true shield of the Scripture. And it should be noted that he cited the necessary testimony from Deuteronomy that he might show the sacraments of the second law.
— St. Jerome
(354 - 430)
Source: “Commentary on Matthew, 1.4.5-7,” quoted in Manlio Simonetti, ed., Matthew 1–13, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 61.
But now for the third time, the full ambition of diabolical power is at work. The Lord was taken to a very high mountain. All the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them would be his, he was promised, if only he would fall down and worship. His answer broke through all the devil’s suspicions. The devil had enticed Adam with food and led him from the glory of paradise to the place of sin—to the region of the forbidden tree. And he had corrupted him with ambition for a divine name by promising a future similar to that of the gods. In this same way all the power of the world is arrayed against the Lord. The possession of all this is offered to the devil’s very Creator, so that in line with the order of the ancient deceit, he whom the devil did not entice with food nor move from place, he would now corrupt by ambition.
But the Lord’s response put the matter on a higher plane. He said, “Begone, Satan! For it is written, ‘The Lord your God shall you worship, and him only shall you serve.’ ” The devil had to live with the outcome of such great recklessness. His crimes were being discovered. He realized that the Lord his God must be adored in the man. By this effective response, the Lord gave us a decisive example. With human power having been disdained and with worldly ambition being held of little account, we also should remember that our Lord and God alone must be adored, especially when the devil’s honor has become the common business of every age.
— St. Augustine
(354 - 430)
Source: “On Matthew 3.5,” quoted in Manlio Simonetti, ed., Matthew 1–13, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 63-64.