The Word Embodied
Unmasking the Great Deception
“The gift is not like the offense.” (Second Reading)
A wise old spiritual director in the British Isles is reported to have said, “There is a little bit of the fake in all of us.”
If he was correct, his insight may have had something to do with original sin. The Eden story was, remember, a drama woven of pretense and cover-up. Adam and Eve were the first to bite on a big lie: the denial of our creaturely dependence.
We do seem to master the art of denial at an early age. Witness the clever words of the “innocent” toddler accusing someone on the other side of the room as the milk is spilled, “See what you made me do?” Soon after infancy, we invent playmates to blame for our own blunders. “Jimmy did it.” As teenagers we imagine some pretense, some “aura,” which will make up for the terrible inadequacy we feel. A few put on the pose of the outsider, some play it hot, others stay cool. The cover of designer clothes helps, as an advertisement for Nike burbles, “Good clothes won’t laugh at us behind our backs.” Even facing marriage, some are hounded by the fear that a future spouse might find out what they are really like and then reject them.
We so much want to look good, to seem more intelligent or composed or virtuous than we are. We don roles: “Father Joe Relevant,” “Sister Mary Renewal,” “the perfect couple,” “the success story,” “the saint,” “the picture of health.”
“Looking good is everything,” a chorus of consumer hucksters screams. Even the postmodern halls of academe have announced the inescapable fact that everything we do is a masquerade for strategies of privilege and pleasure. Pretense marks the “real world” of school corridors, unfriendly streets, and political platforms. Cover-ups not only bring down presidencies, they haunt everyday life. As Freud said, the major barrier to healing is the wounded person who asks for help but is secretly unwilling to face the truth that healing requires.
Is deception something we have to learn? Is it bred in the bones? Is it the fatal flaw of every human?
Adam and Eve, we are told, had almost everything. The only drawback was the fact that they were creatures of limit. They were good, but not God. They could have the fruit of every tree except the tree of limits, the tree of creatureliness.
It was their creaturehood that made them susceptible to the Lie.
Enter the serpent, that cunning beast, that lord of lies, who taunted their obedience and reliance on God. “Not any of the trees?” (No, they could have all the trees but one.) “Do you not want to live forever?” (But they already could eat of the tree of life.)
Ah, but the attraction of having no limits. To be God. To be self-sufficient, self-made. The pretense was attractive, desirable. The ruse looked so wise.
Thus sin entered the world, St. Paul writes, through one act: the lie of self-sufficiency. That was the offense. And it would be righted by one act as well: a life of utter truth. That was the gift.
The temptations the devil fed to Jesus were nothing other than delusions we all dream of in our longing for radical independence.
“Become your own food.” Be self-sufficient. Display your power. But Jesus refuses. God alone will be his food.
“Show your stuff; muster your magic.” Leap from the temple in full self-assurance. But Jesus will live by the word and power of God alone.
“Look out from the highest mountain and all will be given you, if you only give yourself to the Lie.” But Jesus declines the self-adoration, reserving glory for the Lord our God alone.
The sin of the first humans was to reject the condition of humanness: splendid creatures, yet nonetheless dependent on God.
The gift of the new Adam was a total acceptance of humanness, an entering so deeply into our limits, and even into the effects of our sin, that there would be no other reality to his consciousness than abandonment to the will of the one who sent him.
So what’s left for us, we who are neither God nor savior? Well, to receive the truth is a great and difficult thing. That is why true confession is such a marvelous sacrament (and so rare). If we just acknowledge the simple truth of our limits and our sins before God and Christ’s people, we reverse the offense of Eden and enter the gift of Calvary.
In acknowledging the lies of our own egotisms, of the great injustices of the world, of the excesses in appetite, of the woundings in relationship, of all the mean divisions in the church, we drop once again the heavy mask of deception. It falls from our faces, revealing our need.
We are sinners, dear friends. If we do not know that, we suffer a poverty of self-knowledge. But if we yield to the truth, not only that we are creatures, but that we are in sore need of redemption, we are newly free, open to love.
We reverse the big lie of Eden as we embrace the big truth of Gethsemane, now able to say with the one who graced our fallen state, “Into your hands I commend my spirit.”
**From Saint Louis University