Msgr. Joseph A. Pellegrino
First Sunday of Lent: The Fight Against Evil
This Sunday’s readings begin with the account of the Fall of Man. The thought that humankind would be handed over to evil because the First Man and First Woman ate an apple or some sort of fruit certainly seems like an overreaction by God. However, look carefully at the reading. Before they turned from God, Adam and Eve were innocent. They were told that they could eat from the abundance of the Garden of Eden with the exception of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Notice the name of the tree, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. In the Bible to know is to experience. Mary was surprised that the angel said she would have a baby because she did not know man. Back to Adam and Eve. God did not want them to experience evil. But he also gave them a free will with the ability to choose good or evil. They were tempted by the serpent. The nature of the temptation is so important. The serpent did not tell them that the fruit tasted better than the fruit of the other trees. Nor did Adam and Eve eat the fruit because they were hungry. The serpent told them that if they ate this fruit, they would be like gods. Then they would not need God. They ate the fruit as an attempt to push God out of their lives. Their pride led them to experience evil. Once they ate the fruit, they were no longer innocent. They were no longer like that toddler who runs around the house in his or her birthday suit. They experienced sin, and with it shame.
The essence of evil is a turning from God. St. Augustine speaks about it as a flight to nothingness. For God is the source of all that is. Evil perverts His Creation so that instead of the good things He creates leading us to Him, we use His gifts to run away from Him.
The Genesis story of the Fall is not about fruit. It is about the temptation we all have to act as though we do not need God. This is also at the heart of the three temptations the Lord endured in today’s Gospel. Jesus was hungry. The devil didn’t tempt him to pray to His Father to provide food. He tempted him to turn the rocks into bread, and use the power His Father had given Him for himself. We are all tempted to selfishness. We are tempted to hoard for ourselves the gifts the Lord has provided. The second temptation the Lord endured, throw yourself from the parapet of the Temple and expect your Father to catch you, was a temptation to show superiority to the Father, a temptation to demand that the Father go into action. We do this when we demand something from God. Sometimes we say that we pray but God does not never hears our prayers. That is wrong. God hears our prayers. Sometimes, though, He says, “No.” There are times and incidents in all our lives when we have to join the old country singer, Garth Brooks, and thank God for unanswered prayers. The temptation to force God into action is seen even among some well-meaning but ill-informed people who believe that certain prayers will always produce the desired results. God is God, and we are not God, or gods.
That third temptation the Lord endured is the temptation we all have to accumulate possessions and power as though these gifts from God will make our lives happy. Jesus did not fall for this lie as He stood on that mountain top and viewed all the Kingdoms of the world, all His if only He worshiped the devil. Many people in the world worship evil if it increases their fortunes or their status in life. They even call it the way of the world. Interesting expression. The Way of the World is the Way of the Devil. Think about the dark places in our society, the places of drugs, the places of the sex industry, the places where the powerful plot to destroy the weak, plot to take advantage of those who cannot protect themselves. Those misusing their positions and their possessions happily choose evil; choose to worship the devil, so that they might increase their own wealth.
At the beginning of Lent we are summoned to take a serious look at the conduct of our lives. Are we committing the original sin of pushing God aside? Is He a low priority in our lives and therefore no priority at all? Lent calls us to examine how we are using His Gifts. Are we selfish? Do we take advantage of others? Or do we recognize our dependence on God and do whatever we can to serve His presence in others?
The number 40 is used throughout the Bible whenever the world is going to experience a major change. There were 40 days of rain in Noah’s time when God gave man a new start. Moses went onto Mt. Sinai for 40 days and received God’s Law for the people. Elijah traveled for 40 days to that same mountain, in his time called Horeb, and restored the worship of Yahweh. And Jesus spent 40 days in the desert before beginning the proclamation of the Gospel. We spend 40 days of Lent, not just to complete some tasks, not just to give up things. We spend 40 days preparing to transform our lives so that we might be an Easter People.