Oh, the Garden of Eden. One wonders whether or not it really existed. But the story of the Garden of Perfection speaks to something deep in us. We sense or dream or hope that once upon a time things were perfect. That life was simple and good, beautiful and full of truth, love, and light. The ancient mind may have shaped these longings for original perfection around a garden: a time and a place when creation was perfect, before there were such things as toil and pain, broken relationships, failure and hardship.
This particular garden of paradise may have been a religious response of a captive people, yearning for a better time to come. It comes when Judah has been overpowered by Babylonians who were world famous for their hanging gardens, one of the great wonders of the ancient world. This story, from that time and place, may have been their religious attempt to portray the God of Israel as the one who has the best garden of all. And the story makes the point that all amazing gardens, even those of the powerful Babylonians, are in the end places that will fall from grace.
Our own sense of original grace or innocence may not be attached to gardens, but perhaps more to children or infants. We tend to see infants as innocent creatures. And children often convey the sense that God gives us a beautiful start in life, until perhaps those teenage years. But whether we speak of gardens or children, there is here the view that once upon a time, at the beginning of life, things were wonderful and everyone was happy.
And then things begin to disintegrate and innocence is lost. The serpent is an ancient symbol of powerful evil. We have an ancient ingrained dislike of such creatures. The snake in this story reminds us that some of what happens is beyond all human control, even as we contribute to the problem with our own fallibilities. The forbidden fruit is a reminder that there are some things we best not get into. Boundaries are important. The name of the tree and the awareness of the man and woman in the story indicate how innocence is lost as we seek to know and control more and more. And once innocence is lost, it can somehow never be recovered. Once we know what we know, it is hard for us to find that innocence again. The carefully crafted dialog between the man and the woman is not meant to place blame on anyone but rather reveals how our rationalizations and good intentions can lead us blindly down the path to disaster. All of that is here. In this ancient legend. In our hearts. In our time and place.
And there is no better place to begin Lent than here, in this well crafted story. In the loss of innocence and the dawn of pain, in the rationalizations and fractured good intentions, in the loss of boundaries as we grasp at everything on every tree, in the way we interact with the evil around us, and in the consequences of knowing too much about things we can never control. It’s too bad the lectionary committee that selects these readings decided to omit so many of the verses.
But in the second lesson, Paul uses the theme of Adam and Eve. He’s speaking of Jesus, really, and wants to make a point. And Jesus is another good starting place for Lent. As sin came into the world through one person, it is resolved through another one person. Paul is speaking of Jesus as the image of that which can piece life back together again, once it has been corrupted, polluted, and desecrated by centuries of human endeavor. He is speaking of Jesus whose death reveals the deeper mystery of a loving God who lives and dies with us through the best and worst of life; until that innocence, we thought we had lost, we discover is embedded in all the experiences we have gone through. And then we all begin to find our way back to God’s garden again.
It is this Jesus who continues the ancient dialog with the devil in the gospel of Matthew. We are no longer in a lush Garden of Eden. This is the desert of despair. And the desert of despair is another good starting place for Lent. And the devil comes, surprising to us perhaps, with the Bible on his lips. It seems anyone can use the Bible for all sorts of things, and often those things end up badly. The devil tempts Jesus three times. The temptations involve hunger, the will to power and fame, and the question of the ultimate God. Often in the past, I’ve talked about each of these three temptations as a different issue of faith. And I suppose that is a good way to look at this. But this year, what struck me is that the three temptations indicate that the devil just keeps at it, over and over and over. And does not quit until Jesus himself takes the initiative in the dialog. And that might be the difference between Jesus and Adam, the intentional initiative for the good, the right and the true. And that is a great place not to start Lent, but to end it: with intentional initiative. Intentional initiative not so much in some garden or some desert, but in our own heart, in our lives. What do you need to work on?
For this is the season of Lent, the spring of life, when we sense the dawn of the innocent and the new, when we face that which ails us and reflect on what Jesus means and does, when we confront the evil around us, when we sense how just one person deciding to do what is right can make all the difference in the world.