Poor banished children of Eve!
A former Roman Catholic priest, raised by a Catholic mother and a United Methodist father, now a Lutheran pastor, former executive of the Maine Council of churches, and on loan to the Episcopalians as the “priest-in-charge” at Trinity church of Lewiston. One could say that this community may have hit the ecumenical jackpot in 2016. And so, why not start today’s sermon, as I sometimes do, with a bit of Roman Catholic trivia?
You have undoubtedly seen Catholic statues of the Blessed Virgin Mary. What you may notice is that the statues have different significance based on their iconography. One of my favorite icons of the Blessed mother is of her holding a toddler Jesus, and one of his sandals is falling off; this is the icon of our Lady of perpetual help. However, the most common icon and statue of Mary depicts her crushing the head of the snake. It calls to mind the piety surrounding the Regina Coeli, the prayer known in Roman Catholic circles as “Hail Holy Queen”. In that prayer, Catholics say, “Hail, holy Queen, mother of Mercy, our life, our sweetness, and our hope. To thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve. To thee do we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this vale of tears. Turn then, most gracious advocate, thine eyes of mercy towards us, and after this our exile show unto us the blessed fruit of thy womb, Jesus. O clement, O loving, O sweet Virgin Mary.”
Now there is some serious Catholic Marian theology there that we card carrying Protestants will not unpack today. However, there is a wonderful book entitled “Poor Banished Children of Eve” written by Gale Yee. In the book, there is a social, historical critique of Hebrew Scripture and culture around women being portrayed as evil.
In redemption theology, we see Christ offered, as St. Paul tells us today, as the new Adam undoing the sin of the original Adam. In Catholic piety, the vision of Mary crushing the snake’s head makes her the new Eve, undoing the sin of the original Eve. It is essentially goddess theology. Poor banished children of Eve are we indeed. As human beings, we are given to temptation. It can be our undoing, our banishment.
We would miss the point entirely of today’s gospel if we consider the text only from the perspective of its characterization of Jesus and his mission and his temptation. It is also, and foremost for us, a statement about the church. Jesus, not without difficulty, resisted these temptations; the church, however, has rarely been able to do so. As Douglas John Hall writes, “indeed too often (and perhaps characteristically) the church has succumbed to the point of acting as though the devil’s proposals were entirely compatible with its founder’s divine commission. There are not three temptations, but three variations on the same basic theme. The devil has a one track mind. As from the beginning, he tempts his victims to go for power.”
In looking at the temptation of Christ in the desert, we would do well, we poor banished children of Eve, to look at the times when we have been tempted to find power in empty miracles, power in the temptation to engage in spectacle, and power to use the political process to dominate others. We, and by extension, the church, have not had a wonderful track record with this. How many times have pious Christians benefited at the expense of the poor or the disadvantaged? How many gay and transgender kids have committed suicide over generations of Christian oppression? How many people have been made to feel less-than because of race, gender, or class or ethnicity or religious expression? How many times has my grab for power disempowered someone else? Poor banished children of Eve indeed. Wouldn’t it be easy if we could turn stones into bread, if we could govern for as far as the eye can see, or if God could scoop us up and save us from our stupidity by some act of magic?
During the season of Lent we look to our own repentance for the times that we have succumbed to temptation. And to do that in the full Lenten context, we look ahead to Christ on the cross, whose ministry was shaped by the very elements that tempted him in the desert. This Jesus who was tempted to use magic to turn stones into bread, fed 5000 from next to nothing. The Jesus who was tempted to have dominion over all that he could see got a bird’s eye view hanging from a cross on the top of a hill. And the Jesus who was tempted to be rescued from his fate, as he breathed his last, said, “Father, forgive them, where they don’t know what they’re doing.”
As disciples of Christ at the foot of the cross during the season of Lent and at all seasons of our lives, temptations really need not be our undoing, but can be our renewal. Every time we are tempted, we are given an opportunity to over-correct, as it were, to turn temptation into opportunity. When tempted to satisfy myself at the expense of others, I am given an opportunity to give ridiculously to those in need. When tempted to abuse power or privilege in any way, I am given an opportunity to empower someone else. And when tempted to use God’s forgiveness as an excuse for being a jerk, I am given an opportunity to forgive to an absurd degree the sins of others.
So, poor banished children of Eve, we are faced with the reality of evil in the context of grace. The late Anglican theologian Marcus Borg wrote, “The Christian life is not about pleasing God the finger-shaker and judge. It is not about believing now or being good now for the sake of heaven later. It is about entering a relationship in the present that begins to change everything now. Spirituality is about this process: the opening of the heart to the God who is already here.”
Resisting temptation, indeed overcoming temptation and crushing evil begins in relationship, NOW. We children of Adam and Eve need not be undone by sin, but may rather see sin undone by our thoughtful and prayerful following of Jesus Christ crucified. Jesus turns down the empty magic show of the devil, he brushes aside the temptation to meaningless power and embraces selfless service. Poor banished children of Eve, we are banished no more when we do the same.
Thanks be to God.