Today’s reflection is by Bondings 2.0 contributor Michaelangelo Allocca, whose brief bio can be found by clicking here.
Today’s liturgical readings for the 1st Sunday of Lent can be found here.
This Sunday’s liturgical readings start with a passage that became the platform for much of Christianity’s distorted genital obsession. I hope to shed some light on the genuine hope and even joy found in its real message, which culminates in the lesson of the gospel.
The Genesis account of the Fall tells a story of the struggle of humanity, caught between God and temptation. Matthew’s account of Jesus’ temptation in the desert, tells another version of the same struggle. What strikes me in the Genesis reading is its description of how God makes the garden for us, with trees “delightful to look at and good for food.” Notice: enjoyable, and not merely serviceable. A garden containing sustenance for the human couple is just good practical sense. But making it aesthetically pleasing (“delightful to look at”) also is just, well, gratuitous, as a friend once said about the graceful, fragile beauty of a heron we were watching. It is yet one more reminder, along with the more frequently remembered sharing of God’s own breath, of the intimate, loving relationship of joyful communion that God intended.
This emphasis on delight is even more striking if we remember the sharp contrast between our spiritual ancestors and the cultures around them. In the ancient Near East, the idea that all of creation was the deliberate act of a single God was shockingly unusual. Most of the Hebrews’ neighbors were polytheistic. These neighbors’ creation myths usually viewed our physical world as an accident, an afterthought, or the side-effect of a war between different groups of deities. None of these myths have a hint of actual love for humans coming from the creator god[s]. Instead, the purpose of humans was almost always to be slaves to the gods, and be punished severely if they flubbed the job.
But Genesis shows us as favored children of a God who wants us to enjoy the world in partnership with God. This enjoyment and relationship is ruptured, however, when “the serpent” tries to replace partnership with competition for power and control. The quote marks around “the serpent” are there to show that our ancestors knew to read a talking snake symbolically: the serpent is merely an outward physical manifestation of thoughts the humans already harbored. Eve sees that the tree is “good for food, [and] pleasing to the eyes,” a near-verbatim repeat of the description we heard earlier. Does this thought remind her of the tree’s Maker, and suggest that she should trust that Maker more than the serpent’s voice telling her “He’s lying”? No. And so sin begins as the humans shift from the loving communion of God’s plan towards a grasping for control and power.
And yet, too many in Christian history have read this story and did not see the lust for power, but just plain old lust, as the beginning of sin. From a foolish misreading of the story’s nakedness image, many conclude that this story is about sex, which is why I call it the source of the Church’s genital obsession. Nothing evil or obscene is said in the story about the genitals of the human couple. In fact, God did not think they needed to be covered up. The humans’ awareness of their nakedness was meant as nothing more than a poetic representation of the loss of innocence. (Animals and infants don’t “know that they are naked,” and so feel no shame about it.)
I suspect that the Christian (especially, but not exclusively, Catholic) conflation of sexuality with this first sin is the major source of the denigration both of women, and of all who may depart from “the norm” sexually speaking, most obviously queer or trans folks. If sex is bad and needs to be tightly controlled (e.g, it’s only ever permissible within a marriage of a man and a woman), anyone who challenges that control is by definition “objectively disordered.” That is why we must reclaim a proper reading of the Genesis account of “the fall.”
Did Genesis really mean that sin, at its root, is about grasping for a purely transactional, power-based relationship with God and with the rest of the world? Matthew’s temptation story in today’s gospel provides the answer. Satan tries to seduce Jesus (not with sex – almost as if that’s not really so big an issue) into … a purely transactional, power-based relationship with God and with the rest of the world.
Satan clearly knew scripture, but I think his real blunder was failing to realize that Jesus understood the Genesis story as a story of power. Satan tried precisely the same kind of temptation on Jesus he’d offered Adam and Eve, as if that story hadn’t been read and studied by Jesus’ people for generations. Command these stones to become bread (i.e., exert power over them). Trick God into commanding his angels to save you (i.e., use coercive/deceptive power to force God to use God’s power). Worship me, and I will give you (presumably to command them and exert power over them) all the kingdoms of the world.
Although intended to hide the sex organs of Adam and Eve, those fig-leaf Fruit-of-the-Looms managed to focus attention on them. The only thing they covered up was the real meaning of the story.
Rather than the clear message that the original sin was the introduction of power dynamics and competition into God’s delightful and harmonious garden, the fig leaves led some people to delude themselves into thinking the sin was sex–with destructive consequences, primarily for women and sexual minorities, for two millennia.
This Lent, may Jesus lead us individually, and as a Church, away from the desire to command and control, and back towards the joyful communion God intended.
—Michaelangelo Allocca, New Ways Ministry, February 26, 2023