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Sunday, February 17, 2013

You will be like gods (First Sunday of Lent, Year C)

It’s always a temptation for people like me to overintellectualize Lent. It’s easier, for instance, to talk about fasting than to fast, or to extol the value of almsgiving over actually parting with lucre. Similarly, it’s easier for people like me to be in love with love rather than to actually love, which involves self-denial and radical other-centeredness, which, intellectually speaking, I understand to be the real meaning of ecstasy. I'll have to take your word for it.

The gospel for Lent 1, and more obliquely that of Ash Wednesday, referring as they do the foundational stories of the Exodus (and therefore of creation), demonstrates to me again that love is more a matter of choosing than of feeling, and exposes again the shining insight of Paul in 1 Colossians that Jesus is the image of the invisible God. 


Temptation in the light industrial Garden of Eden,
by Australian artist Reg Mombassa
The serpent has gotten a bad rap since the days of Genesis. As you probably know, in Hebrew mythology, Satan is one of God’s servants. It seems to me that the conflation of the modern idea of Satan with the serpent of Genesis is a Christian addition to the story. To the writer of Genesis, it was just a snake (probably with legs, living in a tree) that was tempting Eve, telling her to try the tree in the center of the garden, because if they did, she and Adam would be like gods. I say “probably with legs” because there would otherwise be no reason for the curse that would leave the snake crawling on its belly. If it were already crawling on its belly, what kind of a curse would that be? “(Eve’s children) shall stomp on your head, and all you’ll be able to do is strike at their heel.” It’s a whimsical scenario, really, both the sadness of the way we blew it in Eden (which is to say, the way we blow it all the time, as Joni Mitchell says, we “don’t know whatcha got ‘til its gone,”) trading away everything we need that makes us truly happy for what we think will give us more. 

We’re such creatures of desire, aren’t we? Look at those game shows that tempt people to trade huge amounts of money or prizes for the possibility that they might get something better, even when the alternative is to leave empty-handed. Look at the way I buy lottery tickets week after week, even after reading The Drunkard's Walk and knowing full well what folly the lottery is in the light of the laws of probability. It’s part of why Rene Girard’s anthropology of mimetic desire is so cogent to me: it just feels right, like he’s been reading my email (particularly the ones from the Illinois Lottery). We seem to be oriented toward wanting more all the time, and the only salvation from that is love, love-in-action, that is, to give away what we have on behalf of the other. All of that is just to say that trial and temptation, which is the central issue of the gospel of the first Sunday in Lent, is not the work of Satan, but if we are to believe both Genesis and Job, the work of God. It’s sort of God’s way of sorting things out. People get tried, people mess up, even run away, but God stays with us. I tend to think more and more that it's not even so much God testing us, but the universe just going by randomly as it does, and our gradual awakening to God's presence with us in the chaos.

What does all this have to do with today's gospel? Well, it’s more explicit in Year A of the lectionary, when the first reading is literally the story of the fall, coupled with Matthew’s version of the desert temptation of Jesus. Today's Lucan narrative is joined to a reading from Deuteronomy that recounts the heart of the exodus. Though it is the Exodus story that is behind the words of Moses in today's first reading, Genesis isn’t ever far away, as there is a way of reading Genesis’s creation myth as a projection of the Exodus narrative into the deeper past. In Exodus, God brought order out of the chaos of history for Israel. God made a people from nothing, from a gaggle of Hebrew slaves in Egypt. Having made them into a people, they are tempted in the desert, and throw off their allegiance, testing God, worshipping other gods, and looking for a king. The Genesis story echoes Exodus, not the other way around. Genesis is the five-fold telling of the betrayal of divine favor (the fruit, the slaying of Abel by Cain, the destruction of Sodom, the flood, and the tower of Babel), leaving the final punishment of humanity singularly unabated, except by the story of Abraham, which begins the long journey of the covenant.

Eve and Adam, human beings sprung “fresh from the Word,” walk with God in the garden, know God’s voice, share divine friendship. Yet when the temptation is there to “be like gods,” they disobey the divine command, and lose everything. Jesus, fresh from his baptism in the Jordan where he had some kind of experience of hearing the divine voice calling him “beloved,” is tempted like Israel in the desert to make manna, to listen to the empty promises of other gods “courting him with lies,” to take a place among the mighty nations, chooses instead the voice he recognizes from the Jordan, even in the silence of the wilderness, and casts his lot with the Beloved. Jesus thus keeps the covenant that has been broken over and over between God and people. Rejecting the lures of power, comfort, and security, he chooses to be like a human being, rather than to be “like god.” 

The irony, of course, is that this is what God is like! We’ve gone so long building God into our own image and likeness that it seems impossible to us that God would not be all-powerful in the way we imagine power. Instead, God’s “power” comes from self-emptying for the other, an act which God accomplishes utterly and completely in every non-moment of “existence.” And rather than being diminished, God’s life is perfect, creatively teeming life. Jesus knows that the Beloved is calling him to fuller humanity. The kind of messiah Jesus is will be an image of the God who calls him, not a wonder-worker, but one who is solidarity with us, Emmanuel, I-am-for-you. Ultimately, Jesus will lay his life down rather than clinging to it. He goes the way of human beings trusting that God will still be in solidarity with him in the chaos of death and the grave. “Therefore, God has raised him on high, and given him the name above every other name.”

It occurs to me that as I begin Lent, the disciplines of fasting, prayer, and almsgiving are ways of changing my habits of self-preservation and aggrandizement into habits of other-centeredness, whether that other be God (in prayer) or neighbor (in almsgiving), for these are the same, according to the gospel. Fasting is another way of giving myself away, of not clinging to habits of self-preservation as a higher good than self gift. Of course, all of these things can be crazy, too, they have to be done with the right attitude (see Ash Wednesday’s gospel) and with an attitude like that of Christ, which upholds the value of life as manifestation of divine being. All fasting, almsgiving, and prayer is governed by the law of love, including the healthy love of oneself, appreciating one’s existence as a divine gift. Fasting will help me not to ask for stones to be turned to bread. Prayer will help me to remember who loves me, who is with me, who calls me, and not to worship lesser gods. Almsgiving will help me not cling to what I possess as my savior, and teach me better to trust my baptismal connection to other people, and not miraculous divine intervention, as the salvation of the world.

To be chosen by God, to know the voice and call of the one to whom I am beloved, what a gift that would be to discover again this Lent! To finally realize that embracing humanity fully, and not some counterfeit of it based on desire gone awry with accumulation of goods and power, is the path to the divine. To know that I am like God when I am giving myself away rather than becoming greater, to feel that in my heart and in my bones, what a surprise that would be. To consciously habituate that, to rehearse it, by fasting, prayer, and almsgiving, that would be a new thing for me. Maybe this year it can be more than an idea, or a nice thought? I’ll keep at it, knowing that nothing I do will, of itself, help me arrive in the dominion of God. I can only start acting like I’m already there, because, if God exists, I guess I am. The reign of God is actually at hand, I just have to turn around and believe the gospel instead of the Lie.