“The joy of the Gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus. Those who accept his offer of salvation are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness. I invite all Christians to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ, or at least an openness to letting him encounter them; I ask all of you to do this unfailingly each day. Now is the time to say to Jesus: “Lord, I have let myself be deceived; in a thousand ways I have shunned your love, yet here I am once more, to renew my covenant with you. I need you. Save me once again, Lord, take me once more into your redeeming embrace.” God never tires of forgiving us; we are the ones who tire of seeking his mercy.” — Pope Francis, “The Joy of the Gospel”
“I have let myself be deceived.” The most important word in this sentence is “I.” I have let it happen. As we begin Lent, we might recall these three phrases of the Confiteor: “through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault.” In the Scriptures, numbers can function as an adverb answering how many, or they can function as an adjective by relating the quality of a thing. The number three in the Scriptures can mean something is absolute. For example: How many times did Peter deny Jesus? Three. Peter absolutely denied Jesus. Our three-fold adverbial clause is a recognition that my own fault is absolute. I have no one else to blame for my sin but myself.
A temptation is a test of loyalty, and our Gospel relates the three temptations of Jesus. Although the temptation occurs three different ways, there is really only one temptation. At the core of each temptation is the question: Will Jesus be loyal to God? Will Jesus trust God? Matthew teaches us that Jesus absolutely trusted God. Important to us at the beginning of Lent is the contrast we find in the first reading. Adam and Eve were tempted as well. They were given a loyal test by the serpent. They failed. Today we pray that God will “lead us not into temptation,” and God does not; however, we manage to find temptation all on our own.
Genesis wants us to see ourselves in Adam and Eve. Have we done any better than they did? The problem that stands between us and a successful Lent is that we think we have done better. At the core, what is the sin of Adam of Eve? Was it merely disobedience? If that were so, their sin would not have been as grievous.
What is the point of Genesis? On the one hand it teaches us who made us; on the other hand, it teaches us why God made us. Genesis 2:15 says, “The Lord God took the man and settled him in the Garden of Eden, to cultivate and care for it.” This verse teaches us our purpose: We are to cultivate and keep God’s garden. Our human purpose is the focus of the story and the context for the sin of Adam and Eve, and it is revealing of our own sinfulness.
It is God who gives purpose and meaning to life. We are made and called to be caretakers of His creation. We are to be mindful that we are stewards of a world we did not create. We receive it only as a gift, and we are to hold it in trust. The power of the Genesis story is its uniqueness. Genesis teaches us that we were intentionally created by God and that God gave us a purpose for our existence. Other ancient creation stories do not teach this. In many ancient stories, humanity is treated as a by-product of something the gods had really intended, or as an accident or even a blatant mistake. The power, the beauty and the joy of Genesis is that because humanity was intentionally created and for the purpose of serving our God, humanity therefore had dignity. We humans have a purpose. We were not created for ourselves. We were created by God and for God!
What did the serpent do? What was the temptation the serpent created for Adam and Eve? The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil represents far more than the ability to know what is good or evil. The power of the fruit was to make a person the decider of what is good and what is evil. This is God’s role. This is why the serpent could say to Adam and Eve that if they ate the fruit they “will be like gods.” More than mere disobedience, the sin of Adam and Eve was to assume for themselves the role of God.
This Lent we must face our capacity for self-centeredness. We must face our selfish desire to make our own decisions about what is right and what is wrong. We must remember the purpose we were given in the act of creation, that is, to serve God and care for what He has created. How do we do these things? We must allow ourselves to encounter Jesus, the one who stayed true to His purpose in life.
FATHER STEINER, born and reared in Chattanooga, Tenn., is a priest of the Diocese of Nashville. He currently serves as rector of the Cathedral of the Incarnation in Nashville. Previously, he served in the diocesan high school as teacher, associate principal, and principal. He received his education from St. Meinrad Seminary in Indiana, the Gregorian University in Rome, and The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.