Sunday, March 13, 2011

First in Lent, 2011

Genesis 2: 15-17; 3: 1-7; Matthew 4: 1-11

Good morning, and a word of blessing and encouragement for us as we each of us individually and all of us together sail out into the still mostly uncharted seas of this season of Lent in 2011.

It was the Feast of the Purification of St. Mary the Virgin, the Presentation of our Lord in the Temple, the second day of February, and the Pennsylvania groundhog they say foretold six more weeks of winter, and I know I’m watching the calendar carefully with much anticipation. Loved the sunshine yesterday.

In the C.S. Lewis story they talk about the land of Narnia as living for a long season when it was “always winter, but never Christmas.” I know we did have Christmas back there, though it seems a very distant memory at this point, and I suspect that for all of us in these weeks of Lent there will be much leaning forward as we move toward springtime and Easter. We move the clocks ahead this weekend, and none too soon, at least for me.

In any event, the words from the Ash Wednesday service would continue to echo around us. “I invite you therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.” We may not know exactly what he has planned for us in this season, this year. There can be unexpected blessings, and of course also earthquakes and tsunamis. But we would open our minds and our hearts in this way, to be available for his purposes.

The lessons this morning are something like bookends. The ancient crisis, from the sacred word and most distant memory of our human origin. “Of Man’s first disobedience.” Paradise Lost. The moment when Adam and Eve truly became our parents, the mother and father of the reality of who we are, in all our weakness, our brokenness. We would I think watch them on that distant stage in rapt attention and in horror as we imagine all the unfaithfulness to follow.

Even if we’ve never read or heard this story before, we know it by heart. It is where we live. The great and tragic procession of this family of ours, one generation passing on the fatal seed to the next. The character of our human nature curving in on itself. One bite of the apple. And everything that is to come. Lies. Theft. Wars and holocaust. Broken promises. Betrayal. The mundane brutality of so much of our lives. Pride and self-centeredness. The words we speak even when we know they are hurtful and wrong. The choice to turn our eyes away so that we will not need to see. That wonderful phrase of Hannah Arendt in her book on Eichmann: “the banality of evil.” The force we like to minimize, to pretend doesn’t exist. Or at least, if it does exist, that it mostly is known and seen in others, and far away from wherever we are. “She took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate.” That’s where our story begins.

And so in the fourth chapter of St. Matthew it is as though we crawl on our hands and knees on this First Sunday in Lent in our fig-leaf loincloths, sons of Adam, Eve's daughters, heading out into the desert to see the story proceed according to the ancient pattern once again.

Has it ever been otherwise? It’s like the empty stage of a Samuel Beckett play. The existential platform. One Man, and the Ancient Enemy. Eye to eye. Toe to toe. But the story takes an unexpected turn. Breathtaking, even.

And here, now, look at this: a new Adam. The power of God intervening turns the page to a new chapter. And then—and then there are angels everywhere. That’s the key, the sign, the most important part. The angels.

If the old story ends with ejection, and rejection, and the primal curse that is our heritage, here there is healing and renewal and all blessing. Here in Jesus. Healing and blessing. The First Sunday in Lent, but already before us singing out between the lines in the story of the Test in the Wilderness, the text of the greatest of the Easter hymns—Paul in First Corinthians. “For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.” The Serpent is defeated at last.

I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent. These weeks. This journey to follow, to Jerusalem, to the Cross of Good Friday. And to the mystery of Easter. To open our eyes, and ears, mind and heart. For a season not of deprivation, but rather in prayer and reflective reading of Scripture and in the practice of generosity and mercy ourselves, to luxuriate in the richness of his grace. To be filled and overflowing with the abundance of his goodness, his love.

Because this story is all for us. In him is our victory. Night gives way to morning. Behold: all things made new, all for us. God’s angels sang above the hills of Bethlehem the night he was born. And when he faced down the Enemy in the desert. And this morning, First Sunday in Lent, they are in the air all around us here, to bring comfort and peace. As the old hymn: “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy like the wideness of the sea; there’s a kindness in his justice, which is more than liberty. There is welcome for the sinner, and more graces for the good; there is mercy with the Savior; there is healing in his blood.”

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