WASHINGTON, Feb. 16 (UPI) -- (In this 46th installment of the UPI series of sermons, the Rev. Dr. Robert Imbelli, who teaches theology at Boston College, reflects on the human condition and the season of Lent).
This sermon is based on Genesis 2:7-9; 3:1-7; Romans 5:12-19; and Matthew 4:1-11.)
The great French philosopher Blaise Pascal marveled, in his Pensées, about the grandeur and the misery of humanity. His words aptly sum up Chapters 2 and 3 of the Book of Genesis from which the first reading is excerpted.
However, it is crucial to read both chapters in their entirety to appreciate the full sweep of their intricate narrative and multidimensional symbolism.
They are among the most commented passages in religious history; yet they offer new meaning as we read them at different stages of our life's journey.
A generous Creator lovingly forms the man from the clay of the earth and molds the woman from the very bone of the man, breathing into both the spirit of life. God sets them within a garden that provides nourishment for their physical well-being and scope for their spiritual growth.
Their grandeur lies in reflecting the goodness of their Creator, by loving commitment to and support of one another and responsible care for God's creation. In this way they will keep faith with the living God.
But, tragically, they failed. For not content with being beloved creatures, dependent upon their Creator, they sought an illusory autonomy, striving to be "like gods" who can determine for themselves what is good and what is evil.
Longing to loosen the ties that bind them intimately to God, they become entangled in webs of falsehood and deceit: the ongoing misery of the human.
The distance of their fall may be measured by the two different responses of Adam to Eve. At the dawn of creation an exultant Adam pours out a love song to Eve: thou, "bone of my bones, flesh of my flesh."
But, after their mutual deception, Adam, raging against God, repudiates "the woman You gave me." In terms made famous by the Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber, their ecstatic relationship of "I and thou" declines into a dismal routine of mutual exploitation: "I and it."
They fall from grandeur into misery; from praise into blame. And the blame game continues to infect human relations throughout history, drawing death and destruction in its wake.
The Genesis account of human origins is not a "once upon a time" tale. It is a mirror held up to our present spiritual reality. The Lord God's question, "where are you?" is addressed not to some mythical first man and woman, but to every man and woman.
"Where are you at? Where is your heart? What sort of person are you becoming? How truthful are your relationships?"
Pascal, who truly celebrated the grandeur of the human, was quite realistic about its misery, its deep need for healing. But he also saw clearly the stratagems we employ to keep from facing this need.
Like addicts, we are practiced in denial and deception. Pascal calls the universal addiction through which humanity evades its dire predicament: "distraction and diversion."
The forms may have evolved since the seventeenth century, but not the substance. Channel surfing may replace lute playing and shopping malls Versailles balls, but the intent is still the same: to escape from the reality of our need, from the pain of our human condition.
But, like all those addicted, unless we honestly confess our need and our helplessness to manage on our own, we cannot receive the healing power that comes from God. For the good news of the Gospel, as Paul exclaims, is that in Christ God himself has come to our rescue.
God's grace abounds and sustains us, freeing us from sin, filling up our need. Our flimsy efforts at autonomy and our childish displays of disobedience have been transformed by the mature obedience, the life-giving mercy of God's Son.
Christ has restored human grandeur by showing how praise of God and service of our neighbor fulfills the deepest vocation of the creature made in God's image.
For in Christ we see humanity as humanity was meant to be.
In Christ all is God-likeness. He is the untarnished image of the Creator. Hence, Christ is the new Adam, the new beginning of a redeemed human race.
Here we glimpse the importance of the account in this Sunday's gospel of Christ wrestling with Satan. From the very beginning of his ministry Christ confronts and conquers the adversary of true humanity, the "diabolos" whose goal is to tear asunder, to alienate men and women, ethnic groups and races.
As ever, Satan dangles before his prey the morsels of material well-being, fame, and power that can so bewitch insecure humanity. The devil's only requirement is that we sell our souls!
Christ, the new Adam, prevails where the old Adam failed.
Not by power, but by faith: "Begone, Satan. The Lord your God shall you worship; God alone shall you serve." And the devil left him, though he lurks about until the final exorcism, which is Christ's crucifixion, drives him out.
The Lent we have begun does not aim to diminish our human nature, but to raise it up. Lent summons us to enlist under the banner of Christ, renouncing the way of death and deceit and embracing once again the way of life and truth.
Genuine Lenten practice embodies the refusal to lose ourselves in diversions that distract from wholehearted service of God and neighbor. Lent inspires a renewed conversion to the works of justice and peace that heal and reconcile divisions.
Pascal stands out as a great religious thinker because he succeeded in holding in creative tension both human grandeur and human misery. He was neither a facile optimist nor a dour pessimist.
He was a Christian realist. Thus he wrote: "It is equally dangerous for man and woman to know God without knowing their own misery as to know their own misery without knowing God."
He believed, as Christians have for two millennia, that through Christ the merciful God leads us gently out of misery into the grandeur of eternal glory. What else does the Lenten journey signify?