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Through the desert, back to the Tree of Life

On the Readings for Sunday, March 5, 2017, the First Sunday of Lent

"Christ and Adam" by Michael O'Brien (

• Gen 2:7-9; 3:1-7
• Ps 51:3-4, 5-6, 12-13, 17
• Rom 5:12-19 or 5:12, 17-19
• Mt 4:1-11

Several years ago I was out to dinner with a group of people, including a priest. When the young waitress came to take our order, she noticed the priest’s Roman collar. “Are you a priest?” she asked. “Yes, I am. Are you Catholic?” he responded.

“I used to be,” she said, “but I’m over that whole guilt thing.” The priest smiled. Noticing her wedding ring, he said, “May I ask if you have any children?” Somewhat surprised, the waitress replied that she didn’t yet have any kids, but would like to someday. “Well, when you do,” the priest said, “you’ll understand the whole guilt thing.”

Today’s first reading, from Genesis, is about the “whole guilt thing.” It is the story of how Adam and Eve were given a wonderful home in the Garden of Eden, living in a state of original holiness and original justice (CCC 399-400). Tempted by the serpent, our first parents failed the test presented to them; it was a test of their freedom, love and trust. “In that sin man preferred himself to God and by that very act scorned him,” remarks the Catechism. “He chose himself over and against God, against the requirements of his creaturely status and therefore against his own good” (par. 398).

Adam and Eve had all that they needed in order to be content, including intimacy with the Creator. But, having disobeyed God and failed to trust in Him, they were driven out of the Garden and into the desert of a fallen and dangerous world (Gen 3:23-24). Sin had entered the world, and with it came death, pain, suffering, and, yes, guilt.

Those primordial events are the basis for the doctrine of original sin, a belief that is as mysterious as it is essential. As Saint Paul states in the reading from his epistle to the Romans, “Through one man sin entered the world, and through sin, death…” No man is an island. On the contrary, man is not man at all when he is alone; he is made out of love and for love. Sin, however, distorts our ability to love and have right relationships.

“Consequently,” Joseph Cardinal Ratinger explained in his book, In The Beginning (OSV, 1990), “sin is always an offense that touches others, that alters the world and damages it.” Thus, Adam’s rejection of God damaged all subsequent relationships. “Since the relationship with creation has been damaged,” wrote Ratzinger, “only the Creator himself can be our savior.” Or, in the words of the Apostle, the gift of justification has come “through the one Jesus Christ.”

The Gospel reading from Matthew presents a dramatic confrontation between Christ and the devil. Having gone out into the desert prior to the start of His public ministry, Jesus endured three temptations. Each of them represented a temptation the children of Israel had failed to renounce while wandering in the desert for forty years. Of course, the forty days and nights that Jesus spent in the desert represent those years; likewise, the forty days of Lent are based upon the fast of our Lord (CCC 540).

Led by the Spirit and guided by the Church, we enter into a desert of sorts, renouncing various comforts and making more time for prayer and self-sacrifice. This is a season to contemplate the truth about sin and salvation. During Lent we test our hearts and ask: How do I use my freedom? Do I trust in God? How can I grow in obedience and love?

Like the wandering Hebrews, Christ was tempted in the desert. Like the first Adam, He faced, in a garden, the choice between doing the will of God or rejecting it. The Son of God—fully human as well as fully divine—was obedient, going willingly to the Cross so that many could be made righteous. The challenge for the children of God during Lent is to recognize our guilt, admit our sins, and follow the Lord through the desert, back to the Tree of Life.

(This “Opening the Word” column originally appeared in the February 10, 2008, issue of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)

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About Carl E. Olson 1197 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.

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