Frances writes on next Sunday’s Readings :- Our Readings today emphasise that Bible reading is not for the unenlightened literalist. They are about the use of ‘myths’ to give insight into the human condition. Now to say that something is a myth is not to rubbish it, or deny its use and proper place in all literature, even in sacred texts and in our understanding of reality. It’s just that we can sometimes get fixated on the wrong thing. There never was a garden. Gardens were the work of the ancient Persians who mastered the art of water control in dry landscapes and made them into a great art form. Part of our oldest Creation story, (Genesis 2:7-9. and 3:1-7) and its continuation, the myth of the Fall, which are the work of the oldest Biblical writers, are a picturesque way of getting human beings to think about their situation. For those of you suspecting me of heresy, I refer you to the Letter of the Vatican Biblical Commission to the Archbishop of Paris in 1948 which insisted it was not necessary to read Genesis 1-11 literally. It was sent to combat those who were allowing the pictures to confuse the interpretation and understanding of the message. Those writers of around 9-800 BCE were in fact thinkers, grappling with their faith in the face of the terrible behaviour of their fellow believers. What we might ask has changed?
It is when we put the scenery, attractive as it is to one side, and look at the content, that we begin to appreciate what our Genesis readings are about: food, good (or bad), judgment and power. They are about how we understand ourselves in relation to God the Creator, and how we see ourselves as free agents, choiced human beings, and the dilemma choice can bring. Now you may well, at this point, prefer to stick with the tempting by the serpent and the tragic-comic buck-passing that this engenders. Sadly this is omitted from our Reading, for it does in fact highlight the real issue beautifully. What our myth, or story, is about is the perennial coming of age of every man and woman, who have such potential to be godlike and yet fail so miserably; and in sadness and shame find it incredibly difficult to face the God who created them flawless, perfect and made for divinity. Like them, we all, down through the ages, have resorted to covering our nakedness, our ruined but essential humanity, from the God who so fashioned us and longs to communicate with us.
I was fascinated to see that the Temptations undergone by Jesus (Matthew 4:1-11) reflect so closely the account of the Fall in Genesis, something I am sure the Fathers were very much aware of. They are on three issues: food; divine protection and power. They are a figurative account of what it was that finally decided Jesus to take up his given cause, the salvation of the world, in the aftermath of the arrest of John the Baptist. They are about his ‘coming of age’; and are in fact also about every man and woman. They are about how we deal with the most basic issues of human life: what we are to eat to survive and how we get it; how we are to find protection for ourselves and those we love, and the methods we choose to use to get it; and the ultimate dilemma for everyone, power, and how we decide to use or abuse it.
On the surface we might decide that Jesus’ solution was fairly simple and straightforward. Having no family to support, he allowed others to feed him and his closest associates. He decided on an itinerant ministry largely in Galilee, and took on the role of challenging those whose valuations of God he believed to be wrong, and finally he did this by the complete abnegation of power which led to his death on the cross. Whilst things may not be so clear-cut for the majority of us, you can see that for those of us called to see Jesus as the model of perfection and the way for all Christians, the ‘myth’ of the Temptations of Christ do help us to engage with those issues at the core of our being, and through which the fundamentals of our lives are etched out, though, in our case more often hedged about by serpents than we would freely admit!
St Paul (Romans 5:12-19), as we observe, has done away with myth as the backcloth to the human condition in need of redemption. In its place he put a quite dense and complicated bit of theology in which he plays on the idea of one or many ‘falls’. The need for such an act of divine grace went without saying in such a religious age, and of course Paul was also grappling with the problems raised by his Jewish colleagues, some of them Christian, who believed that scrupulous devotion to the Jewish law could bring redemption. Paul saw through this final power play and, like his master, rejected it. It is only when we abandon all our props, and give ourselves utterly to Christ Jesus, that we can fully encounter God’s grace and the new and eternal life which he alone can give. What I think Paul is saying is that in Christ a great unclothing of each of us is taking place. Where humanity covered itself in shame before God its Creator, in Christ we shall stand before him as we were always meant to be, naked and unashamed.