It’s best not to issue a challenge to a class of bright people. It has a way of ricocheting. I recently posted a series of questions for my RCIA class that included a list of Biblical personages with the query: who are these people, what did they do and what does it teach us as Catholics. One smarty-pants asked for answers…….
It’s actually an interesting exercise. I instituted the list a year ago because I found that more than a few people in my RCIA and Confirmation classes had gaps in their Biblical knowledge, making it difficult to draw story lines though the great scope of salvation history. I find now as I work my way back through the list that my journey and my classes have opened up a great deal more to me over the years. People I thought I knew well, I have come to know better. They point out ever fresh dimensions to my own story and the great sweep of God’s action in the world.
Take Adam and Eve. Reading the story of the creation again, I was struck by a couple of things. First, of course, is the fact that there are two stories of creation in Genesis. The first is a simple tale, but it conveys the essentials: God made everything in creation, and He made us, male and female, in His image, blessed us and blessed us to give life and to be stewards of the earth. The second story carries these essentials, but expands them. The New American Bible has God molding Adam out of clay but the Douay Rheims uses the term slime—a much less tidy word. You can make pots from clay, but I’m hard pressed to find any particularly good use for slime…. the Bible of my youth, the King James version, has it as dust. In any case, the material stuff of our origin is pretty humble but by the hand and breath of God, we became something beautiful, made in the image and likeness of God. But it happens only because God laid his hands on us and breathed in us His own breath. It’s a pretty powerful metaphor for how we are to live our lives, holding God’s hand and asking for the gift of His Spirit.
The Baltimore Catechism started out with a question about our purpose in life. To know God, to love God and to serve Him in this world so that I might be happy with Him in the next. Adam and Eve—at least until the unfortunate incident with the fruit—had the knowing and loving part already. The brief description of their life before the fall gives us a glimpse of what living life as it God wills it would be: the wholeness God intendeds and creates for us. Adam, it would seem, didn’t ask for a wife—God recognized that he needed one. Not a bad lesson for us. God really does know our needs before we do. And before the fall, in Eden, Adam and Eve live as they were made to live: in deep and easy communion with God, who made them, unafraid and unashamed.
Ah, but there’s that pesky serpent, that sin of pride, of wanting to be like God, and wanting to make the rules. There’s a case to be made that the sin of pride is the root of all other sins. There is the contrast of Mary with Eve, and that language about enmity between Woman and the Serpent, all language of type that, looking back, is the thread from which the tapestry of the Nativity and the Crucifixion are eventually woven. There’s the fist of a long series of first sons in the Bible who fail miserably, only to be set right by the second sons. Adam, and the fall; Jesus, the New Adam, and the resurrection. But lately what strikes me about the story is the theme of reconciliation that runs through it.
God looks for Adam in the garden after Adam and Even have eaten the fruit, just as He looks for us today. Adam, ashamed has hidden himself, a practical absurdity given an all-knowing God. But God doesn’t grab Adam by the scruff of the neck and drag him out of the bushes, demanding satisfaction. He calls out from a distance, and asks Adam why he is hiding. God knows, of course. He’s not asking for information. It seems to me that God is asking for Adam to admit he’s done something wrong, and to be open to righting his relationship with Him.
Adam, for his part, like every son and daughter of Adam since, just can’t bring himself to do what is needed. He just can’t be humble and admit what he has done—humility being, after all, an acknowledgement of the truth. He dissembles, he lies, then he blames Eve, who blames the serpent—between the two of them, they try every human maneuver to avoid the circumstances.
The trajectory of the story is that once fallen, Adam and Eve simply cannot do what is needed—and the story doesn’t really tell what that might be—to restore the relationship with God. It seems pretty clear that, left to our own devices, we’ll make things worse every time—compounding disobedience with lies and blame. Righting that relationship with God is going to depend entirely, in the end, on God: the first in a long series of lessons about the need for God’s grace that ends on a cross in First Century Palestine.
I wonder every time I read this: What if Adam and Eve had just said, “I messed up, God. I did exactly what You told me not to do, and I am sorry!” Would mankind have lost Paradise?
No matter. That was then this is now. They didn’t and we did. But the story reminds me of a few of the basic essentials from which my Catholic faith begins:
There is a God.
I am not He.
He made me and He loves me
He knows what I have done.
He looks for me even when I have sinned.
The Exultet at Easter puts it together this way: O happy fault, that gained for us so great a Redeemer. God, in his knowledge, knew Adam would sin, just as He knew Adam had sinned when he hid from God in the garden. He knew that calls to reconciliation alone would not reconcile man to Himself, but He had a plan from the first instant of creation to do just that. That plan would restore man not to the earthly paradise that Adam and Eve lost for us—but to a heavenly one. Instead of an earthly perfection, Adam’s sin ultimately gives us access to supernatural life with God.
It’s becoming clear to me that the Catholic Church expects me to take seriously Christ’s admonition to be perfect as God in heaven is perfect, acknowledging all the while that it isn't going to happen this side of the grave. Like Adam (and Eve) , I cannot do it on my own, but because of Adam (and Eve) , God sent the means into the world—His Son—for me, someday, to become perfect by His sacrifice and His grace. It’ a pretty good inheritance from our first parents.