Ask your presider to tell your listeners (or tell them yourself):

First Sunday of Lent, February 26, 2023

Before the first reading:

In this ancient story, humanity's first sin is described symbolically as taking to oneself a privilege reserved to God.

After the psalm, before the second reading:

Saint Paul teaches that Jesus makes a very radical change in humanity's relationship with God — so big a change that Paul can only compare it to God's original creation of human beings.

Before the gospel acclamation:

Saint Matthew describes Jesus' temptations after his baptism in ways that remind his Jewish Christian audience of their Exodus experience and first covenant with God.

First Reading, Genesis 2:7-9, 3:1-7

Our Liturgical Setting: It's Lent, originally the season when those about to be baptized repented their lives of sin and sought to know the Lord Jesus more intimately. Then Lent became a season for the baptized to do the same. We search ourselves honestly, and pray earnestly, to know where we must become open to God's grace of ongoing conversion. The church begins the season with a reflection on the origins of sin among us. Good preparation for the lector would be to read all of chapters 2 and 3 of Genesis, not just the selected verses in the Lectionary.

A Theological Conjecture: There are many ways to interpret this oft-told story. Dan Nelson's is a good example. In my own judgment, the pivot is what I call the Original Temptation: "You will be like gods, knowing what is good and what is evil." (As Nelson says, this last is a figure of speech with the meaning "knowing everything from A to Z.") We're still tempted to put ourselves in God's place. Most of our sins, be they public, private, corporate, or individual, can be reduced to this: we arrogate to ourselves godlike status, and treat others like subordinates with few or no rights. We resent every limit on our freedom, every way we need the help or support of another creature. We don't want to be responsible for the consequences of our choices. Our trying to become gods upsets our relationship with the only real God, and brings a great imbalance into our relations with everyone else, to whom, of course, we don't grant divine standing.

Proclaiming It: I recommend telling this as a story, whether you accept or not the idea of original temptation. If you favor the interpretation in the previous paragraph, then emphasize the serpent's words in your proclamation. Make it sound cunningly attractive to become like gods. In any case, tell the story as if you're an observer at the creation, one who has never heard the story. Let the assembly share your amazement when you say, "and so man became a living being," because you've never seen anything like this. The garden, as you describe it, should delight your hearers, and they should almost taste the foods that they envision. When you describe the serpent, make him seem attractive, but sound a little suspicious. The woman, perhaps, should seem naive.

Now the climax sounds deceptively simple, not nearly as dramatic as we readers of John Grisham novels like our literary resolutions. But there is a ton of theological and psychological implication in "Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized that they were naked." Everything has suddenly changed for humankind. Let the lector make it sound momentous and tragic.

Second Reading, Romans 5:12-19

The Theological Background: Romans is a complex letter in which Saint Paul works out a number of questions. His major theme is that it's Christ who grants us a right relationship with God. That justification, to use Paul's term, is not our doing, but comes to us as undeserved grace, to which we become open by our faith in Christ. Throughout, Paul contrasts faith in Christ with every other possible stance of humanity before God.

Proclaiming It: Contrasts mark today's sentences, too. Let's look at this challenging passage sentence by sentence, and identify the contrasting elements.

As if to make sure we get this subtlety, Paul repeats himself in the last few sentences. This makes this one of the rare occasions when I would consider using the short form of the reading. Confer with the preacher before deciding.

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Links to other smart commentaries on this week's readings

Credit for the picture at the top:

Temptation of Christ on the Mountain, by Duccio di Buoninsegna, Italian, c. 1255–1260 – c. 1318–1319. This painting was originally part of the Maestà, or Maestà of Duccio, an altarpiece composed of many individual paintings commissioned by the city of Siena in 1308 from the artist. Wikipedia says of the work, "Though it took a generation for its effect truly to be felt, Duccio's Maestà set Italian painting on a course leading away from the hieratic representations of Byzantine art towards more direct presentations of reality."

The Temptation panel is in the Frick Collection, New York City, New York, U.S.A. This computer graphic came from For more on the Maestà, see this Wikipedia article.

This page updated January 30, 2023