Original Sin & Temptation

(Homily First Sunday of Lent, A)

Let me begin this homily with a remarkable story. A while back, they had funeral for a ninety year old man who was one of few remaining survivors of the Titanic. Born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1909, he was only three years old when the Titanic sank. I mention him today because a comment he made sheds some light on our first reading. He said that he has no memory of the Titanic disaster, but what does stick in his mind is what happened when they arrived in New York. He was playing or scuffling with a friend and they knocked over an oil lamp. This greatly upset his mom. The memory of her reaction stayed with him his entire life. For Steve his tiny action had a greater impact than the sinking of the cruise liner.

An event that seems small can loom very large. The same is true with the history of our world. Some events, like the demise of the dinosaurs, can seem--and are--spectacular. But hidden happenings can have a much deeper impact. That is the case with what is described in the first reading. Genesis tells how we were created by a wise, all-powerful God who wished nothing but our happiness. But things have somehow gone wrong, very wrong. What happened? The Bible states that instead of using our freedom to serve God and thus partaking of paradise on earth, we wanted rather to be "like gods." (Gen. 3:5) We made a choice.* It may have been small, but it was fatal. It was like the first drop of ink in a container of pure water. It changed the color forever. Each additional drop added to the impurity of the water, but the initial drop is the crucial one.

We call that first turning from God original sin. It was not only original in the sense of being first, but that all other human evil has its origins there. The Catechism concisely describes the nature and consequences of man's first sin. (cf. #396ff.) Because of it we find ourselves internally divided. Man has become, as Vatican II stated, an unsolvable puzzle to himself. The effects of original sin are described in this manner:

"Therefore man is split within himself. As a result, all of
human life, whether individual or collective, shows itself to
be a dramatic struggle between good and evil, between light
and darkness. Indeed, man finds that by himself he is
incapable of battling the assaults of evil successfully, so
that everyone feels as though he is bound by chains."
(Guadium et Spes 13)

Twenty centuries ago St. Paul reflected on this same internal division ("I do the very thing I hate..I can will what is right, but I cannot do it." Rom 7:15,19). Considering that dilemma, he asked the resounding question: "Who will deliver me from this body of death?" (7:24)

We have the answer in today's Gospel. One man and one alone faced the full force of temptation--and resisted. C.S. Lewis says only Jesus knows the complete power of temptation. The rest of us are like flimsy trees which, when the storm came, simply bowed over. Such a tree does not experience the force of a hurricane. The one that stands firm does.

No one paid attention to one man out in the Judean desert. But it was by far the most significant happening in the Roman Empire. In fact it was the greatest thing going on in the entire universe. Jesus faced head-on the basic temptations which have constantly tripped us: pleasure, money, fame, power, etc.

Most of us have had so little experience resisting temptation we seem blind to how it works. Regarding last year's White House crisis, many people asked: Why did the president lie so blatantly when he knew he could easily be found out? And how could he have been so stupid to have gotten into such mess? What made him risk so much for so little? All I can say is that folks who ask those questions do not know their own hearts. They have not reflected much on their life.

Part of the problem is that we picture temptation as a beautiful woman or a million dollar bribe. Invitations to betrayal usually do not come in such obvious packages. Typically it is a more dreary affair like Graham Greene describes in Heart of the Matter: small grudges, misplaced affection, a double life gradually yielding to despair. The devil knows from millennia of experience that he does not need dramatic devices to bring people down. How many today, for example, have given over their hearts to pornography, alcohol or drugs? With each step the enslavement grows--and the pleasure diminishes.

But there is hope. In fact, precisely when things seem most desperate, that is when hope is greatest. The reason is simple. A drowning person who considers himself a good swimmer will sometimes push away a life preserver. But when he starts to sink the third time, he may give up his pride and grab on to the one thing that can save him. That is what Lent is about. The Fathers of Vatican II expressed it very succinctly:

"The Lord Himself came to free and strengthen man, renewing
him inwardly and casting out that 'prince of this world'
(John 12:31) who held him in the bondage of sin." (Ibid.)

Lent is the time to come to Him.


*Sometimes people have blamed the woman for the Fall. The Bible does say, "She took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband..." (Gen. 3:6). Dr. Scott Hahn has a fascinating commentary on this passage. He asks why the man was in the background when he should have been at his wife's side defending and protecting her. The Hebrew word nahash which is translated serpent can also denote other, more fearsome, venomous creatures. In the logic of the story, the man may well have been afraid of it and left his wife standing alone. (see A Father Who Keeps His Promises, pp. 65-68)

The Original Sin of Sex (a quiz)

From Archives (Year A homilies for First Sunday of Lent):
Prayer and Spiritual Combat Week 1 (2014)
The Purpose of Temptation (2011)
The Devil is a Logician (2008)
The Temptation of Sloth (2005)
First Signs of Spring (2002)
Original Sin & Temptation (1999)

Complete List of Homilies for First Sunday of Lent ("Temptation Sunday"):

2014: Prayer and Spiritual Combat Week 1
2013: Do Not Talk to the Devil
2012: The Covenant with Noah Today
2011: The Purpose of Temptation
2010: Who Is Like God?
2009: Knee Mail
2008: The Devil is a Logician
2007: More Powerful than Satan
2006: Sir, Go on the Other Side
2005: The Temptation of Sloth
2004: Temptation of Spirituality
2003: Lent with C.S. Lewis
2002: First Signs of Spring
2001: How Satan Operates
2000: The Rabbit's Foot
1999: Original Sin & Temptation
1998: Hidden Sin of Gluttony
1997: Jesus' Temptation & Ours

Ash Wednesday homilies:

The Purpose of Lent
Two Cheers for Catholic Guilt
Don't Waste This Crisis
When You Give Alms
Back to the Basics
Dealing With Guilt
Exercise of Holy Desire

Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C

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