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Humility and Freedom | Reflection for the First Sunday of Lent

Matthew Neugebauer

Friday, February 24, 2023

Adam and Eve Eat Forbidden Fruit; Engraving by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld. iStock photo
Genesis 2.7-9, 16-18, 25; 3.1-7
Messages about humility can be a struggle for me. I sometimes confuse it with timidity, with the temptation to restrain myself, when a situation calls for assertive action or speech instead.
Our first reading on Sunday is the story of Creation, the Garden, Adam and Eve, the serpent, and the forbidden fruit. We encounter this story at the beginning of Lent, which Pope Francis says is an intensive time “to return to the truth about ourselves, and to return to God and to our brothers and sisters.” This leads me to consider this story as an expression of “the truth about ourselves,” about the motivations and desires that enable us to follow God’s will, and an expression of what happens when we twist those desires to go against God’s will, and against “our brothers and sisters.”
“The Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food….And the Lord God commanded the man, ‘You may freely eat of every tree of the garden.’” (Genesis 2:9, 16)
“You may freely eat”: God invites Adam to taste and to explore the full abundance that God has made. This speaks to me of God's invitation to all of us, to explore, be creative, play, sing, write, and dance. It's also God's invitation to plan a path through the Garden of our lives, to organize our resources, and sort out how we go about our day, our year, and our lives. God has given us agency: reason, skill, and freedom to act in ways that affect our future, and that express to the world the beauty of God’s Creation, including ourselves.
“‘But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.’...She took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate.” (2:17, 3:6)
The danger, it seems to me, is when we forget that our freedom and agency is an invitation from God, a gift from God, rather than something we make independently from God. I find the image of Eve reaching out and yanking the fruit off the tree to be powerfully evocative. She extends her arm, wraps her fingers around the one fruit that God told her to avoid, violently pulls it off the branch, and chomps down.
At least, I’d like to imagine that’s how it plays out, especially because of what the serpent promises Eve: “when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (3:5) "You will be like God'' sounds to me like the false promise that we can possess the certainty, control, and ability to dictate the course of our lives, which we can wrongly equate with “divine power.”
Similar to the way I can confuse humility with timidity, others can confuse agency with certitude. We have the agency to influence the course of our lives, the freedom to explore, create, and organize. However, the serpent plays on our temptation to twist that freedom in order to secure our own comfort, convenience, and well-being at the expense of others, or to stick ourselves in the timid safety of familiarity, when God invites us to change and grow. Pope Francis has called this "throwaway culture": we dispose of others, and neglect ourselves, to preserve a sense of control over our lives.
Remember, though, that the serpent is lying. He’s lying chiefly because God doesn’t show His divinity as the power to grasp something He has made, pull it, and cruelly bite into it. He shows us the opposite, such as through the Holy Eucharist: His body and blood, soul and divinity reach out to us, not to control us, but so He can place Himself in our hands or on our tongue, and beckon us to receive Him. In the reading for this Sunday, His power to create life is expressed as breathing, sending breath out from His mouth and into our lifeless bodies.
The serpent is lying also because our agency and freedom aren't things we can grasp for ourselves. (cf. Philippians 2:6) They are gifts and invitations from God, offered through His breath of life, which enables us to live, stand up, and explore His abundance. Another part of the Creation story expresses it this way: we don't need to grasp, yank, and chomp down on a forbidden fruit in order to "be like God," because God has already made us “in His image, according to His likeness,” and blessed us to “be fruitful and multiply,” to take part in His creative work. (cf. 1:26, 28) The agency and freedom that God invites us into, as the bearers of His image, are gifts of love that make us who we are, make our children who they are, make the human family what it is.
At the end of John’s Gospel, the newly-Risen Jesus appears to the Apostles in the upper room, and repeats the moment of breath-infused Creation from our Sunday reading. This time, He begins a New Creation – establishing the Church by empowering the Apostles – by breathing on them with the words, “receive the Holy Spirit.“ (John 20:22) Through the Apostles, through the New Creation of Baptism (cf. 2 Corinthians 2:17), Jesus offers us all the gift of His Holy Spirit. He offers us the Spirit of God, the Breath of God, which gives us the humility to submit our agency and freedom to the discernment of God’s will. He offers us the Spirit of God, the Breath of God, which leads us to act, create, organize, and live according to God’s purposes, for His greater glory, and for the well-being of others and ourselves.The Spirit of God, the Breath of God, is God’s gift of love, that makes us who we are and who we are called to be.

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