by Br Julian McDonald cfc
“The snake replied: ‘When you eat it, you will be like God and know what is good and what is bad.’” Genesis 2: 7- 9; 3: 1-7
We humans are story-telling creatures. For a significant part of each day, we tell stories. We engage in that activity when we’re on the phone, when we sit around with co-workers at morning tea and lunch, when we gather with friends for a drink after work, when we sit with family at the dinner table. Most of our stories are accounts of our experience, about what we saw and heard. To those accounts we add our interpretations and impressions. Every now and then we embellish our stories with creative additions in order to impress our audience. As time goes by, the original story may be increasingly embellished, so much so that it adopts the status of a family or institutional legend.
Readers of this weekly reflection have seen on several occasions a statement of my conviction that all stories are true, even though they might not be factual. All cultures have shaped legends that have grown out of real or imagined events and have been shaped to teach cherished values. The Genesis story of the fall of Adam and Eve from their original innocence (today’s first reading) is a true story for the message it carries, rather than an account of a factual happening. From a literary perspective, it belongs to the category of legend. Yet it carries a valuable message about the propensity we all have for doing evil.
The gospel-reading is another story from Matthew that declares how Jesus, in his humanity, had to contend with temptations to do evil but was successful in resisting them. Matthew’s account reinforces the message from the Letter to the Hebrews that Jesus was like us in every way, except that he did not sin (cf Hebrews 4: 15). The underlying message of the first two temptations that Satan put to Jesus was that God is really capricious, unpredictable and unable to be trusted. Satan effectively claimed that, if God can turn stones into bread, then God should do it on a regular basis; that if God can send angels to catch people who jump from heights, can such a God, who looks for entertainment in histrionics and spectacular, life-risking swan dives, be trustworthy? When Jesus dismissed those two temptations, Satan shifted to a direct approach, and put it to Jesus that embracing evil would bring him limitless wealth and personal satisfaction. Jesus refused to be seduced and stated clearly that his allegiance and fidelity were to Israel’s God of limitless love and goodness. The three responses Jesus gave to Satan echo words from Moses recorded in the Book of Deuteronomy. To Satan’s first temptation Jesus replied, using words Moses had spoken to the people of Israel : “God let you be afflicted with hunger, and then fed you with manna, a food unknown to you and your fathers, in order to show that not by bread alone does man live, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Deuteronomy 8: 3). To the second temptation Jesus said: “You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test, as you did at Massa” (Deuteronomy 6: 16). Then to the third: “Deeply respect God your God. Serve and worship him exclusively” (Deuteronomy 6: 13).
There is deep irony in our rationalising that, by giving ourselves an experience of evil, we can become like God. When we make that choice, we wipe away any goodness to which we might have been able to lay claim.
Traditionally, Lent is a time when we turn our close attention to how we deal with the temptations that come our way. While we were reminded on Ash Wednesday that prayer and fasting are helpful disciplines for ordering our waywardness, our focus might best be put on quality rather than quantity. God is not a subscriber to the deprivation business. Yet, the central part of the subtlety of the snake’s proposal to Eve was the idea that God was depriving Adam and her of something to which they were entitled. Neither is it helpful for us to conclude that we can earn God’s approval by our setting for ourselves targets for the number of times we stop for prayers or the number of drinks, cigarettes or chocolates we can deny ourselves. Any disciplines we decide to undertake for Lent are surely meant to be about enhancing the quality of our love, our compassion for others and our relationships with one another.
Over centuries, many legends have grown up in the Christian churches, especially linked to saints. One, for example, with which most of us are familiar is that of St Patrick ridding Ireland of snakes. He was credited with chasing them all into the sea when some of them attacked him during a 40 day fast he was undertaking (Sounds a little like Lent, doesn’t it?). A popular Lenten devotion for hundreds of years has been making The Stations of the Cross. The sixth Station has the title: “Veronica wipes the face of Jesus”. While there is no reference to this in the Gospels, it comes as no surprise to us that one of the women who followed Jesus to Calvary would have been brave enough to reach out to him in compassion as he was being goaded along, and to use her veil to wipe the blood, sweat and spittle from his face. The story originated in the Eastern Church and was not embraced by the Roman or Western Church until the 14th Century. The Eastern Church had attributed this extraordinary act of compassion to the woman Jesus had cured of a haemorrhage when she reached out in faith to touch the hem of his cloak. They gave her the name of Bernice. When the Latins adopted the story, they changed the woman’s name to Veronica, a name derived from two Latin words meaning true image (vera and icon). While the legend relates that Jesus left the image of his face on the woman’s veil, the act of compassion shown by Bernice, whose name was changed to Veronica, was presented to all Christians as a model or icon of the compassion that Jesus showed to the rejects of society throughout the three years of his public ministry.
The truth of the story is the unmistakable message that everyone who reaches out in compassion to victims of prejudice, oppression, wars, natural disasters and every kind of injustice has the image of Jesus engraved on her or his heart. If there is any meaning to the fasting, abstaining and prayer in which we engage during Lent, it is that those very activities will lead us to reach out in care, compassion and practical assistance to our fellow human beings who yearn for acceptance, security, shelter, food and clean water. The legend of this woman, irrespective of how we name her, is the Gospel in short-hand. Every Lenten discipline we undertake is meant to transform us to live and love in imitation of the woman at the centre of the legend. Let’s not forget that the Gospel can come to us in ways we may not have imagined.