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If Lent is the answer, what was the question?

Father Lou DelFra | Thursday, February 7, 2008

It is a Gospel scene made for prime-time TV – the confrontation between Jesus and Satan in the desert, which serves as the climax of Jesus’ forty days of preparation before beginning his public ministry. It is the Scriptural basis of our season of Lent. But the story actually begins much earlier….

Our Lenten story begins in Eden – in Paradise, where everything is perfect. Plenty of food, animals like each other, Adam and Eve have no quarrels or jealousy, and all live in peace.

Then, an apple later – and Paradise is suddenly lost. How did it end? If Lent is part of the solution, then what was the problem? If we are to live Lent well, it is good to understand the reality it is helping us respond to.

This is what the beginning of Genesis tries to teach us. There is an evil force in the world – symbolized by the Serpent – that leads Adam and Eve out of Paradise. It is the force responsible for what we call temptation – and Lent is a response to the challenge of temptation.

So how were Adam and Eve tempted? The first temptation is simply this: the serpent says to Adam and Eve, “Look how nice that apple looks! Wouldn’t you feel better, more full of life, if you just had that apple?”

As a human being, you wish we had gotten thrown off by something a little more complicated – a real twisted plot that the serpent had to plan late into the night. But no – just “Hey, check out the apple. Wouldn’t it feel good to eat that apple? It’s so much energy to resist the apple. Wouldn’t it be easier to just eat it and get it over with? If God didn’t want you to eat that apple, why would he have made it look so good in the first place? And why would he have given you this desire to eat it? If you desire it, then it’s yours.”

It’s not difficult to see why a lot of commentators on Genesis describe the first sin as a sexual sin – because the first thing the serpent uses to divert us is our appetites, our human desires. But, it seems to me, the heart of the sin wasn’t sexual. Really, it was thinking that just because we want something, it’s therefore our right to have it. That is, the sin seems to be thinking that the world was created just for me.

There’s an apple. I want the apple. Therefore, the apple’s mine. That’s the first temptation.

The second and third temptations then follow from this first one. In the second temptation, the Serpent says to Adam and Eve, “If you eat this apple, you will become like God.” And the third is, “If you eat it, you will know what is good and what is evil.” That is to say, “If you eat it, you become the one who makes the rules for how the world is ordered. You become God.”

What is it that has led us human beings off the right road? What is it that messes up our Paradise? As I read Genesis, it is this: replacing God’s will with our will. Or, as St. Augustine wrote, “The root of all sin is pride” – removing God from the center of the universe, and placing ourselves there.

Well, it all seems pretty depressing – if only because it all seems only too familiar. In many ways, we succumb to this temptation all the time.

And yet, there is a way out. There is cause for hope.

The Gospels announce the birth of Jesus. Then, immediately, Jesus is grown, and follows the Spirit into the desert, where he encounters the Serpent. And where Adam failed, Jesus triumphs.

As the story unfolds, it is not surprising to see that the Serpent hasn’t changed much. He tempts Jesus with the same three temptations. He begins with our appetites, our most basic human desires. “Take these stones and turn them into bread. Relieve your hunger. Use what’s in the world for what you want, for satisfaction.”

But Jesus refuses: “We do not live by bread alone, but on the Word of God. We do not live merely according to our human desires, but according to a much deeper desire to hear God’s will for our lives, and to follow it.”

A second time, Satan says, “Cast yourself down and let the angels save you.” It is the serpent in the garden, whispering in our ear, “Become like God. Do what you wish. You are God. You are at the center of the universe. Everything will reconfigure itself according to what you want. Be petty. Use others. Everything and everybody else will rearrange themselves to accommodate you.” That’s temptation.

And in the third temptation, Satan comes clean. No more hiding his intent: “Worship me and the whole universe is yours.” It is the Serpent again: “Eat this apple, and all the secrets of the universe are yours.”

Jesus’ answer: “The Lord alone is God. God alone shall you serve.” It is a simple, yet powerful assertion, a profession of faith, that God is at the center of the Universe, ordering and guiding all things. True happiness – the restoration of Paradise – comes in allowing our will to be aligned with God’s.

Of course, this is sometimes hard to fulfill. In fact, only one human has ever accomplished it totally. So we ought not try this at home on our own!

Rather, let Christ live within us. Stay faithful to Christ. As St. Paul writes, “In the sin of Adam, we have all become lost. But in the righteousness of Christ, we have all been saved.”

Lent is about far more than what we give up, although that often seems to attract most of our attention. In Lent, we fast and sacrifice for a reason – to try, in the midst of our human shortcomings and sometimes overeager attachments, to enter more fully and freely into a living relationship with Christ. This Lent, give up what you will – but do so that you might be freer to put on Christ. He is the way back to Paradise. He is the answer to the deepest questions of our life.

Father Lou DelFra is the director of Bible studies in the Office of Campus Ministry. He can be reached at delfra.2@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not

necessarily those of The Observer.