March 9, 2014
First Sunday of Lent
R/ (cf. 3a) Be merciful, O Lord, for we have sinned.
As I mentioned in a recent bulletin message, the word “Lent” come from a middle English word, lente¸ which means “Spring.” Because of our painfully, excruciatingly long winter, I’ve found that many of us are finding the lack of Spring far from a laughing matter. But, whatever the jet stream or, worse, the “polar vortex” sends us, baseball players know the truth—Spring is coming, and it’s time for spring training. Spring training—back to basics—renewing the basic skills—throwing, pitching, catching, sliding, all done thousands of times before, but needing some “dusting off” from winter’s palsying effects. No joke—no matter how cold and snowy it remains, stubbornly so, the Church too says, it’s Lent, it’s time for “spring training,” it’s time to go back to the basics, to renew and hone our spiritual skills again. Our spring training’s back to basics indeed goes back to the very basis of our biblical story—the very basics of how we were created and how we got where we are now: The church chooses for us then this most basic of all passages—from the Book of Genesis, regarding creation and the Fall.
Here we read the most basic of basics, easily forgotten: all of creation is good—very good. Of course, our bodies, suggests the book of Genesis, are made from the earth—the lowly stuff of matter. And yet we hear: God exalts in our physicality—and so ought we. So despite our struggles, going back to basics establishes this truth of our faith: our bodies are not our problem. Instead, the struggles that we now experience are about more than our physical bodies, for the Genesis teaching reveals the truth that we are more than mere matter. No, we are more, because God has blown divine life into us. What is this spirit, in Hebrew ruah, that God has blown into us? It is an ordering to God, it is an ordering from God. May I repeat this most basic truth: the literal heart of the matter: The spirit God has “blown into us” is an ordering to God, it is an ordering from God. We are made from the earth, but then we are endowed with a life that orders us to God and orders us according to our good Lord’s direction. Honoring both these dimensions gives us joy.
Isn’t that a beautiful truth? We are created good and are created as more than just matter—molecules and atoms. No, God has blown divine life into us, which directs us to our creator and gives an order to our lives. So, why are people killing each other in Ukraine? Why have thousands perished over the last years in Syria? Why are persons physically and emotionally abused, even in our families and community? Why has such disorder arisen in such a beauty of creation, ordered to and by God, in the human heart?
To answer, we must go back to basics—to the Fall, the tree of good and knowledge, the forbidden fruit. This first act of disobedience illuminates and identifies the basis of the confusion of human life, the disordered and painful experience of lives disordered and in disorder. For the image of the tree suggests that the prerogative of possession and determination of truth—of knowledge—is not with the human creature, but rather a gift given by the creator. Thus, going back to basics, to the basis of the Fall, we see the error, repeated over and over, even in each of our hearts, that we, not God, will determine and decide what will give true meaning to our lives. We will choose what will determine the meaning of our lives.
Lest you consider this merely hypothetical musing, consider the landmark Supreme Court decision, Casey vs. Planned Parenthood, 1992. While this case was certainly about abortion rights in the state of Pennsylvania, it was about so much more! It was about what, about who, gives true meaning to our lives. Justice Kennedy, in his famous “Sweet Mystery of Life” passage, opined: "These matters, involving the most intimate and personal choices a person may make in a lifetime, choices central to personal dignity and autonomy, are central to the liberty protected by the 14th Amendment. At the heart of liberty is the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life." I have not seen a more vivid display in public life of the basic teaching of creation and Fall from the book of Genesis than this decision. Justice Kennedy essentially states, in contraposition to the divine command in Genesis: take the fruit of knowledge for yourselves and eat—and live. You choose the meaning of your life, of all life, even of all the universe! But the bitter result—for countless human lives not yet born—has been death.
Lest I be misunderstood, this is not primarily a homily about abortion. It is about even more—it is about all of our lives—it’s about from where comes our life, and what happens when we decide we’ll choose what will constitute our lives—the “sweet mystery” of our lives. But is also certainly about death—about the deadly things we will choose in our euphoria, unless we choose to choose for our lives God’s ordering of the meaning of our lives.
Notice the reaction of Adam and Eve when they have chosen to eat “the forbidden fruit.” “Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized that they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.” The knowledge causes them to focus on themselves, to close in on themselves, and to lose sight of the most basic of all truths—our creation is good! No, now they are ashamed, they feel compelled to cover creation’s beauty as something shameful, as something not reflecting the creator—as something not good. Once this happens, when we no longer see creation as good, then we can offend this creation. Then follows offenses of anger, killing, violence, and degradation.
How did we get to Ukraine? How did we get to Syria? How did we get to abuse? We turned in ourselves—we decided to claim the “right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life." We got to Ukraine, Syria, and so many other offenses against the dignity of humanity when we decided that we will decide for ourselves what is good for me and what is evil for me. Why are we as individuals, as a culture, as a world, so unhappy? Why are we constantly on a fruitless search for meaning that too often ends up tragically? Going back to basics, our faith calls us to accept that, when we insist that we’ll be the ones to decide for ourselves, we will cut ourselves off from the One who alone gives us life to its fullness.
Our Lent, our “spring training,” then, is about going back to basics. Who are we? We are created good, in God’s image, and with divine life blown into us to order us, to show us the way to full life. Anything askew in your life? It’s time, it to go back to basics, to “repent,” to turn away from ourselves and back to the One who is alone the way and the truth and the life. He is the sole and single “mystery of life.” Behold—the Eucharistic mystery—the Lord giving life to us once again, as St. Paul says, the obedient one who sets us right. How would this Lord have us live our lives? How might this Lord set our lives right?