Mass readings for the 1st Sunday of Lent:
Genesis 2.7-9, 16-18, 25; 3.1-7 Psalm 51.1-4a, 10-12 15 Romans 5.12-19 Matthew 4.1-11
The readings we just heard concern the matter of our fall – the yielding to temptation in the garden; and then the overcoming of temptation by Jesus in the wilderness. That victory over Satan is the first move in correcting humanity’s course away from death and damnation and towards salvation and eternal life in Christ and with God.
Both of these stories are mythic; that is, they tell important truths. That’s what myths do. They tell truth through a story. And these particular stories, of our fall, and then our redemption in the person of Jesus Christ are foundational to our Christian faith. Without them, without our understanding of what they tell us about ourselves and our hope in Christ, the Christian faith becomes unintelligible – it makes no sense. If Christ is the solution, we must understand the problem; if he is the answer, we must acknowledge the question, “where are we headed?”.
Now it does occur that the word “myth” can also mean something that is patently untrue. We have in our language the terms “urban myth” and “modern myth” both meaning current stories that are untrue.
That makes for confusion when a preacher, or a university lecturer uses the term “myth” more in the former sense: as a genre of story that conveys essential or foundational truths of a civilization.
The great Christian writer C.S. Lewis, who wrote the Narnia stories and was a public lecturer and a popular writer on Christianity, coined the phrase “true myth” to help navigate the ambiguity. So, I think I’ll borrow that for the sake of clarity.
And to illustrate how something true can also be a myth—a true myth, I’ll take as an example a story we all know, that we know to be historical, that continues to fascinate, and for many tells important truths about human beings and the sin of pride: the sinking of the ocean liner Titanic. That happened April 15, 1912, a little over one hundred and ten years ago; yet people still talk about it. I know for a fact that at least one member of our parish could come up here and without notes give you a detailed account of the sinking, its causes and the aftermath; and then lead a discussion about the lessons, both technical and moral that come from that tragedy.
That parishioner is far from alone, that not thousands but millions of people continue to have a deep interest in this story, and further 100s of millions, perhaps billions, of human beings know the basic story, and all have a sense of what its moral lesson is.
There have been worse maritime disasters both before and since. Indeed, in 1912 human civilization was not long removed from the routine experience of having ships lost at sea. I mean, if it happened today, I think we would be more understandably shocked, but nonetheless the impact of Titanic’s sinking on our collective psyche happened generations before we were born, and it continues to affect us today.
Why do we still know about it and talk about it? Because it’s such a compelling, dare I say, good story. Good in the sense that it engages most everyone who hears it, reads it, and then detects that it is telling us something more than an account of a particular disaster—in it there is a universal, timeless lesson. It is speaking a truth to us about the consequences of our arrogance and our pride; the sheer hubris, the massive presumption, that we have conquered nature, that we have tamed the oceans. The story reaffirms a deep truth that is told and retold in any number of other stories, histories, parables and fables: the sin of pride leading to our destruction.
It’s the story of Adam and Eve, the story of the garden encounter with the serpent, the grasping after godlike power, and the horrifying result that comes of trying to claim it – how it leads to death and destruction, sin and sin’s consequence, the disintegration of civilization, community, family, and ultimately the self. The Titanic is an allegory for modern society, a cautionary tale, or perhaps a foreshadowing of an unavoidable destiny for the modern world. Hey, you decide; but think about how often you hear it said of those in charge of our failing institutions, our stumbling economy, our crises in international relations, that what they propose to fix our problems amounts to little more than, “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.”
I’ve said before that what prompts Eve to listen and then be deceived by the serpent is a lack of confidence in God, fear; and the antidote to that fear, at least as the serpent has Eve understand, is power; to be like God. And note, he does not say she and Adam will become God, or gods, but just “like gods.” And what a pity they didn’t discuss this off turn of phrase between them first before she plucked and ate the fruit. In a sense she was right to think that becoming “like gods” was a good thing. Gods, after all, are immortal beings; and they are powerful.
A good conversation between them, which would have been a convening of the whole of humanity even as it was just the two of them, might have led to the remembrance that what the serpent said they would get by eating the forbidden fruit was something they already had. Remember, God made man in his image and likeness, male and female he made them. They were already “like God”. Conversation, discussion, and the discernment that arises from it is a core value of Christianity because it, hopefully, ensures that we remember what God has said and understand it correctly.
It was through their communion with God that our first parents knew they weren’t God. The problem, of course, is that in knowing we aren’t God, we must trust in that relationship with Him, that communion with the Creator is our guarantee of life and of our ultimate prosperity.
The knowledge gained from the forbidden fruit was just the same, but with the horrifying realization that this necessary relationship with God is now damaged; and what was at first a seed of doubt and a hint of fear became shame and terror. They were cast out of the sheltered world of the garden and into the wilderness. Humanity’s been there ever since. While we can’t go back to the garden, we still can return to God, or we can continue to pursue power as the answer to our predicament.
It’s in the wilderness that Jesus has his showdown with the devil and must face the fears of humanity, and the ultimate temptation of power as the means to allay those fears.
And here’s the contrast. Two people are in a garden where everything is provided and they are completely safe, and yet they surrender to questionable doubts and irrational fears. Jesus is in a desert with scarce water and no food, a place of snakes and scorpions, ravening lions, and little shelter.
As St. Paul tells us in his letter to the Philippians, Jesus “did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited.” While he could summon angels, make bread from stone, he instead maintains solidarity with us in our suffering and in our wandering, and in his humanity puts his trust in God to show us that we can do this. We can do this together, Christ and you and me. Jesus does not grasp after power, but clings to God; and he is delivered from Satan who must now bide his time.
I was reading the other day about the décor of the Titanic. Apparently, the interior design was quite deliberate in creating the illusion that, at least for the 1st and 2nd class passengers, they were in a grand hotel and not traversing a great roiling mass of dark water of unfathomable depth, mystery and potential terror. The salon portholes were covered over with long vertical glazed glass panels such as one would find in a London tea room, they let in the light from outside, but kept you from looking out as the rolling deep. Wealth, even of a modest middle class sort, bought you the illusion that an Atlantic crossing was akin to a week at the London Savoy. Our prosperity, our current material comfort has a society has led many to think of life in similar terms, and to ignore the real dangers of life’s great journey.
The folks in steerage of course were never afforded that odd luxury of distraction from what exactly was going on; but isn’t that always the case. There you knew were in a ship at sea. Apparently, you could hear the engines.
Nonetheless, all of the passengers were in the hands of the White Star Line and they were mostly confident in Captain Smith’s competence, and certainly impressed by the size of the ship that looked so enormous in harbour. They failed to appreciate how small it would prove to be in the vastness of the open ocean; and they were entirely unaware that imprudent risks were being taken in terms of course and speed as the ship headed into the drifting ice of the North Atlantic.
We know, of course, what happened, and are aware that the ship’s radio officer would then send out the signal: S.O.S. – that is, “save our souls.”
Our souls are in our hands, and I would advise that we be careful as to whose care we give them – that it is not to those who promise you bread in exchange, or promise that it is in earthly power, be it political or technological, that you will be kept safe. Our salvation is in the Lord, and in the keeping of His Word, in our humility before Him, and in our worship and service of God.
Through this Lenten season, as we make our way in the company of the saints triumphant, let it prove to us that we can traverse any distance in our journey to God so long as we stay faithful, keep Satan at bay, and let the angels instead wait on us.