November 9, 2023 at 7:00 a.m.

The oldest temptation

God does truly understand the depths of any pain I or any human being might experience precisely because of the choice to enter into our wounds through Christ’s own fleshly wounds
Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger
Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger

By Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger | Comments: 0 | Leave a comment

One of the things I most love about our Christian faith is the depths of its mystery. By mystery, I am not thinking so much of things you or I do not — cannot — understand, but of its awesome, attractive beauty, a Presence that lies behind every veil that might be peeled away. The deeper you delve into it, the more you probe, the further you go, the more awesome and wonderful you discover it is. Of course, the mystery, the Presence at the core of our faith is God and, for Christians, the manifestation of God in the incarnate reality of Jesus Christ, God and man, which both announces and assures us that wherever humanity goes, God is there. Even if we stray from God, getting lost in the tangle of our wayward ways, God is there with us, pursuing us, seeking us out, burning with a desire to restore us fully to the friendship God seeks with us and which we need ultimately to be ourselves. And it gets personal.

Contrast this with the behavior of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and, to be honest, our own behaviors when we forget who God is and who we are, when we confuse the roles by falling into sin. God gave Adam and Eve (our first parents, their children, us) everything. As creatures they were, and could never be, all that God is. So, of course, God had to set boundaries, reminders that the infinite mystery of God’s identity cannot be grasped by any human being. This boundary is depicted as a certain tree in the Garden of Eden. And we know the old story. 

Satan, jealous of human beings, for the friendship God offers us, is forever seeking ways to disrupt the joy, harmony and peace we have when we are in communion with God. What was a daily pattern of trust and celebration, a real “heaven on earth” as our first parents walked with God in the cool of the evening breeze, as Genesis depicts it, cannot be allowed to stand. The voracious ego of the Evil One must absorb the attention God pays to the beloved human beings who are the crown of creation and demand they worship him, also a creature, but one who cannot accept that he also is a creature, who wants to be God and will not serve God. Rebellion and division, not peace and harmony, are what consumes him. No wonder he engulfs himself and all who fall for his shtick in hellfire.

Knowing full well that the order of God’s creation — who is God and who is not — can never be changed, he resorts as always to the Big Lie. Satan cannot create, he can only mock. So he proposes various doubts to Adam and Eve (and to us) in cynical, smarmy language with which we are all too familiar from him and his minions. Questions like, “do you really  think?” and suggestions that God is hiding things from us because of a fear that we will actually become “like God” and overturn God’s sovereignty. Here we see the wicked mind of a disrupter whose only view of power is that of a destructive, polarizing weapon used to divide and dominate. He has no appreciation of the power of love which seeks to live and let live, to free and to beatify the beloved. The oldest temptation is that we become “like God” when we turn into ourselves instead of to God. As it turns out, just the opposite happens. We lose both God and us. And so goes the saga in that original garden and in the world over throughout history. One reason not to ignore history, by the way, for we keep repeating it.

Another tree, of course, emerges after an agony in a garden some 2,000 years more recent to us. Jesus, the incarnate Word of God, is sweating blood over the sins of a fallen humanity, experiencing the pain that God the Father appears to want him to endure, so that we might know the depths of the love of God expressed in human pain. This is another one of those Christian mysteries. Can God really suffer? Can God experience pain?

Scripture holds many examples of what has been depicted as “the wrath of God.” Even the passion and death of Christ has been described as the anger of God toward the sinfulness of the human race being taken out on his Son. We know from experience how often pain and anger are intertwined. A parent who is grieved by the behavior of a disobedient and ungrateful child may be tempted to say, “I could kill that kid.” We have seen the rage-filled behavior of people bound in passionate relationships turn to jealousy and violence. Anger, however, in human experience, is often a cover-up, a kind of shield against what is really a very deep pain, the hurt of betrayal, the shame and fear of being abandoned.

It has been said — and I think this is true — that unless we can understand, or at least hear the pain of a friend, we do not really know that friend. We cannot claim to know someone if we do not open our hearts to the knowledge of their deepest wounds. It has been troubling me deeply these days on many levels, especially when we witnessed the events of October 7 — the Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary, by the way, and historically of quite some relevance to the massacre in southern Israel that day — and the aftermath, the silence and even denial in the face of the savage attacks of Hamas. Some have reacted in shock against the “resurgence” of anti-Semitism, though what I see is only the peeling away of a thin veil that has only hidden its dormant persistence. I can only imagine the painful realization many of my friends of the Jewish faith must be coming to — or may long have suspected — that the age-old curse against respect for their faith, indeed their very humanity, persists. Anyone who has experienced this vile hatred — of being rejected and defiled just because of who they are — knows something of this pain.

The One who hung on that tree in another place, the hill called Golgotha, also experienced torture and death just because of who He is. Humanity’s answer to the God-Man who loved us to the end was: go back to where you came from, we don’t want you here. Of course, this is the perspective of one of the Christian faithful, but for me, for Christian believers, it is real and it opens up so many layers of hope and promise, just to be able to hold onto that Cross with the conviction and confidence that God does truly understand the depths of any pain I or any human being might experience precisely because of the choice to enter into our wounds through Christ’s own fleshly wounds. A bond of friendship has been irrevocably forged and it must include suffering because all true friendship demands it.

This adds a whole new dimension of reality or, better, a level of awareness, to what it means to be “like God,” the temptation that Satan posed to our first parents (us), the mendacious suggestion that divine glory and power somehow would mean an exemption from pain and suffering. Earlier I floated the question, can God suffer? Only God, of course, can answer that question, and through the mysteries of our faith, it is clear God does so, at least in a way that can be received, if never fully understood, by mere human intelligence.

If true love means an ability and a willingness to listen to and enter into the suffering of the beloved then the Cross has to be a pretty good example of a response. For us Christians, of course, the only one. Jesus pours out all 12 pints of his blood, all that he had. He cries out “I thirst,” and I think he means much the same thing he did when he asked the women at the well for a drink, a divine thirst, a hunger, for our souls, for our love. He moans in the agony of being abandoned even by the Heavenly Father with whom he is always in communion, feeling in his humanity what God can never be in terms of divinity — separated personally from any essential component of that divinity.

God indeed suffers in the reality of who Jesus Christ is. Not only the historical Jesus of Nazareth who lived and died on that Cross. The same Jesus who rose and gave us liturgical re-presentation of Calvary in the Most Holy Sacrament of the Eucharist, the Mass, in which we consume his Body and Blood and are united and fed by Him, becoming the very Body and Blood of Christ in the mystical Body of the Church. What he suffers, we suffer. Wherever any member of the human race suffers, He is there and we may be as we ought, when we enter into this mystical communion. This includes not only our bond with our co-religionists, our fellow Christians, but all suffering humanity. God wants all of us to be saved.

 @AlbanyDiocese


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