Tuesday, February 28, 2023

The Cross of Christ for us is the Tree of Life: Homily for the First Sunday of Lent 2023

                                                    מדרש תמונה

Dear brothers and sisters, it is often the case that when we read, or listen to, the episode of the temptation of Adam and Eve, we focus on one tree – that of the knowledge of good and evil – and its fruit. To do so, however, is to perhaps continue to remain with the suggestion of The Tempter. The great achievement of The Tempter was to distract the attention of Eve from the fact that there was just one tree that was forbidden, and that all others were available to eat. The other, and perhaps greater achievement, is that The Tempter distracted her from the fact that there were two important trees; one I have already indicated, the tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil, which I will simply call the Tree of Knowledge from now on, and the other was the Tree of Life. In fact, in the narrative from Genesis that we heard today, the tree of life is mentioned first, which suggests that this tree was the more important one, and indeed it is, as I will explain.

What do we know about this tree of life? From the book of Genesis, from which the first reading is taken, not much. But we do know a whole lot about it as a result of the life of Christ contained in the Gospels, because you see, the tree of life is nothing other than the Cross of Christ.

Before I proceed, I would like to draw your attention to another fact of our faith which often goes unnoticed. Christ was present at creation. Indeed, it was through him that the world was created. He did not exist in human form, which he took from the time of His conception in the Virgin Mary, but he was present in the world. His presence is discernible throughout the Bible. As the Fathers have taught us, the life of Christ is foreshadowed in the Old Testament; that is to say, His presence is always suggested in the Old Testament.

This is the case with the Tree of Life which we hear about in the reading from Genesis – Christ was already present in the Garden of Eden, the Cross is the Tree of life, and its fruit was, and is, the body of Christ.

Now that we have identified the Tree of Life, let us contrast these two trees. God forbade us to eat from the Tree of Knowledge, of the Tree of Life he says to us, everyday, and every time a Mass is celebrated “Take and eat”. Of the Tree of knowledge we know that “the tree was good for food, pleasing to the eyes, and desirable for gaining wisdom”, and of the Tree of Life we know that it offers us grace, and the road to eternal life. Indeed, because we know of the value of this fruit, we know that while God prohibited consumption of the tree of knowledge, we know that through His Son he pleads with us “Take and eat”. This is no simple invitation, he is begging us to eat. We know that he is begging us to eat, because this fruit was obtained at great cost – not only through the death of an innocent man, but also through his torture and suffering on the cross. And this is no ordinary man, but God, who humbled himself. Think about this again, God, the biggest thing in the universe, chose to become like us, who are dust, or clay. All so that, as St. Paul teaches us in the letter to the Romans, sin that was introduced into the world by the greed of one man, may be dispelled through the grace purchased through the death of another.

Based on this knowledge, we also begin to appreciate the nature of the two fruits. The fruit of knowledge is good to eat, that is to say, it satisfied physical hunger; the fruit of the cross satisfies spiritual hunger. The fruit of knowledge is pleasing to the eye, the fruit of the cross is, in the words of the Prophet Isaiah “marred was his appearance, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of mortals” (IS 52: 14) this was while he was on the cross, and even as regards his everyday appearance Isaiah tells us that “he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him” (Is 53:2). In other words, in terms of physical beauty, Jesus, the fruit of the cross, has nothing to compare with the Tree of knowledge, and yet, it is this ugly, or at the very least bland product that offers us eternal life. The reward of the fruit of knowledge on the other hand is sin, and thus death.

These contrasts between the two trees also tells us something about the way The Tempter operates. He does not give us the whole truth – this is of course Our Lord Jesus Christ – but only parts of the truth. He appeals to us, as he did to Christ during the temptation through our desires, our appetite – for pleasure, and power. Jesus on the other hand speaks to us, as he did to the prophet Elijah in a whisper, in silence.

And so, my dear brothers and sisters, at the start of this Lenten season I have the following suggestions that may add some value to this season, as well as our relationship with God.

First, spend time in silence before the Cross. Contemplate the cross. That is, sit, or ideally kneel, before the cross and stare at it in silence. Stare at it fixedly. I assure you that the cross will speak to you, not dramatically by the corpus moving its lips, but more affectively in the core of your heart.

Second, repeat, as often as we can, the phrase “The Cross of Christ has become for us the Tree of Life” and appreciate the way in which the teachings of Christ, and his Church, have made a positive difference in our lives. Give thanks for that.

Alternatively, repeat “We praise you O Christ and we bless you, for by your Holy Cross you have redeemed the world.”

When I recommend repeating I don’t mean merely rote repetition, but also contemplate what the words mean. However, when one starts out, one will need to merely repeat it so that it gets under our skin, it becomes automatic. It is only then that we can begin to contemplate.

Third, ask ourselves how often we have succumbed to The Tempter. How often have we preferred worldly knowledge, instead of The Truth. How often have we privileged our material appetites over truth, or bowed down before false gods. This happens more often than we think, in small ways.

Fourth, go and make a confession. As the psalm today recommends to us, let us go before God with a pure heart. It requires reminded that merely communing is not sufficient, we need to have confessed our sins for the Eucharist to be effective in us.

And finally, contemplate Our Lady who stands sorrowful at the foot of the Cross, and pray that she may intercede for us this Lenten season.

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