Today’s first reading from Genesis is familiar to most people. It forms part of our creation myth. It tells our story, which is the story of God’s relationship with God’s creation. The verses for the First Sunday of Lent describe the creation of humanity:
God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.
The verses then take us to the temptation:
Now the serpent was more subtle than any animal of the field which God had made. He said to the woman, “Has God really said, ‘You shall not eat of any tree of the garden?’”
Ultimately, the verses end with the fall of the first humans:
The eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked. They sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons.
This is a story we have heard more times than we can count. That is both its beauty and its weakness. This story is not about the past. This is a story that is continually unfolding, made timeless in the realm of eternity, and made particular in our own lives by the reality of the Incarnation. The same God who started it all in the beginning of creation is still creatively active in the world and in each of us today. The same God who planted a garden in Eden and placed God’s human creation there, is the same God who witnessed the temptation and the fall. It is the same God who gives witness to us. It is the same God who witnesses our best selves and our more scandalous faults. It is the same God who puts up with us competing with God.
But just how do we consider this reality of the Incarnation? How do we encounter a God who still creatively and actively plants a garden in our own lives? I think we focus on incarnation as a starting point and then conclude with the temptation of Jesus in the desert. Two years ago, Pope Francis preached about the scandal of the Incarnation. On the Feast of St. Justin, he said:
“Without the Incarnation of the Word the foundation of our faith is lacking… That is the truth, that is the revelation of Jesus. That presence of Jesus Incarnate. That is the point. If it is forgotten, there will always be a strong temptation to do good things without the scandal of the Incarnate Word, without the scandal of the Cross. The Church confesses that Jesus is the Son of God who came in flesh. This is the scandal and this is why they persecuted Jesus.”
The scandal of the cross is our Lenten starting point. Instead of acting like God, we are called to decrease. This is our focus. Once in a while we fail to keep our eyes on the prize, just like Adam and Eve. Just like Adam and Eve we can sometimes attempt to replace God with our own self-image. This is sin. What happens when we fall into sin? Well, we do as Christians have done for years—we ask God for mercy.
Have mercy on me, O God, in your goodness;
in the greatness of your compassion wipe out my offense.
Thoroughly wash me from my guilt
and of my sin cleanse me.
The temptation we are susceptible to and to which Jesus was tempted was to play God. We inevitably fail. However, Matthew’s Gospel gives us hope. Satan’s temptations failed, because Jesus refused to play God. Instead, he clung to the mission of serving God. He inspires us to do the same.
The Temptation reminds us during this season of Lent that we are not God:
“It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view. The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision. We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work… We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker. We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own.”1
For 40 days we work at decreasing and letting God increase in our lives and in the lives of the people around us.
1 This prayer was first presented by Cardinal Dearden in 1979 and quoted by Pope Francis in 2015. This reflection is an excerpt from a homily written for Cardinal Dearden by then-Fr. Ken Untener on the occasion of the Mass for Deceased Priests, October 25, 1979. Pope Francis quoted Cardinal Dearden in his remarks to the Roman Curia on December 21, 2015. Fr. Untener was named bishop of Saginaw, Michigan, in 1980.
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