Man’s Fall in the Garden
On the first Sunday of Lent, our Old Testament reading provides us with a broad narrative of the Garden of Eden. After God created the heavens and the earth, and filled it with all manner of living creatures, He crowned His creation by forming a creature from the dust in His own image. That creature was man – Adam, which here in Hebrew is a generic term for “human being.” Understanding Adam (as well as Eve) not just as a literal person but as representative of human beings reminds us that the Ancients relied on this narrative to explain human nature, and why we are so good at messing up!
The LORD God did not stop when he created Adam. God planted for Him the garden of Eden, with every tree being pleasing to the eye and good for food, and the tree of life rising in the midst of the garden. God created Adam and placed him in paradise – God’s paradise, that is, with Adam given the honor and responsibility of taking care of it.
We are all, of course, familiar with the next part of the narrative: “The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it. And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, ‘You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die’” (Genesis 2:15-17).
The narrative goes on to explain how Adam named all the living creatures, but lacking a suitable helpmate, God formed Eve, Adam’s wife, from one of his ribs. And they were both naked and not ashamed.
We can infer two realities from the text at this point. First, Adam and Eve did not yet know death; God did not create sin, nor does He delight in the death of living creatures. Death, as verse seventeen states, would come from eating from the fruit of the tree.
Second, before eating the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, Adam and Eve did not know sin. Up to that point, they had lived in perfect submission to their loving Creator. Adam and Eve were not ashamed of their nakedness in verse 25. They were innocent, not subject to the lust of the flesh. Article 9 of the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion (1571) describes this state as “original righteousness.”
Human beings therefore lived in original righteousness – harmony with God in paradise – and then the serpent came along. The serpent tempted Eve by eroding her trust in the LORD God, causing her to question what He had said: “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’” (Genesis 3:1). Notice how subtly he distorted God’s words – not just asking about the one tree, but “any tree?”
We must be aware that Satan still uses the same trick on us today. All it takes is for us to make subtle compromises in our lives – all those “little sins” we pretend not to notice – and suddenly those compromises compound into far greater disobedience.
Satan tried this same technique on Jesus when he was led into the wilderness. The devil challenged him in the same way, but using different words; “If you are the Son of God,” amounts to the same thing as asking, “Did God actually say that you were His Son?” Yet Jesus, the new Adam, who stayed perfectly obedient to God, did not sin as we did by forgetting God’s commands.
Returning to Genesis, we see that Eve did not fare so well. She responded with her own subtle distortion of God’s command: “You shall not eat of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it” (Genesis 3:3), adding requirements where there were none before.
Having been tempted by the devil, Adam and Eve allowed their trust in God to die in their hearts and abused their freedom in order to disobey Him.
“So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked” (Genesis 3:6-7). This was man’s first sin.
Deprived, not Depraved
As our catechism describes it, “Sin is the seeking of our own will instead of the will of God, thus distorting our relationship with him, with other people, and with all creation” (HCAC Catechism, Q28).
Yet original sin is not merely the first act of sin. Original sin is a condition – the human condition. Our catechism goes on to explain that “Original sin is the fault and corruption of the nature of every human being descended from Adam (the first man), whereby humanity is very far gone from original righteousness, and are of our own nature inclined to evil (Article 9, Thirty-nine Articles)” (HCAC Catechism, Q29). When we sin, we are preferring ourselves over God and in that act scorning Him.
Pay close attention to the qualifier we use when describing the human condition. We refer once more to Article 9 of the Thirty-nine Articles when we say humanity is “very far gone from original righteousness.” Where one falls with respect to this dividing line has huge implications for how one understands human nature.
On the one side, there is the error of Pelagianism, the heresy which holds that human beings are “essentially good,” and that by the natural power free will and without any help from God live a holy life, reducing Adam and Eve’s sin in the garden to nothing more than a bad example. This error is to totally misunderstand the problem of evil and renders the Gospel meaningless.
On the other side is a popular view held by very many of our brothers and sisters in Christ – the concept of “Total Depravity.” Taught by Protestant reformers, this idea asserts that there is no goodness inherent to human beings, and because we are so radically infected with sin, we have no freedom to do anything good at all, not even to choose to believe in Christ.
Our tradition asserts that Total Depravity is unbiblical because it violates the free will of humanity and thus the love of God. Rather than “depraved,” we should instead understand our nature as being “deprived.” We are deprived of original righteousness, not depraved to the point of lacking free will.
Our Suffering, Redeemed
Faced with the problem of evil and sin in our lives, all of us have at some point asked a question: “What’s the point of all this?” Perhaps some of us have asked this question recently. “Why did God allow Adam and Eve to sin? What is the point of all the problems I have to put up with in my life?”
It is a serious question: What is all my pain and suffering and hardship good for? And it is understandable not to be satisfied with the short answer: “Oh, well, that’s just the way it is because of original sin.” While not incorrect, that answer paints God as some sort of bystander.
Reflecting on the passage from Genesis, I was reminded of an ancient phrase: “O happy fault!” From the Latin Felix culpa, it describes the paradox of a “happy fault or a “blessed fall.” This phrase is used in the Exsultet (a proclamation) of the Catholic Easter Vigil mass: “O happy fault, O necessary sin of Adam, which gained for us so great a Redeemer!”
We also make use of the Exsultet at the start of the Easter Vigil, which is led by the Deacon, and though we omit that phrase, the Deacon (standing by the Paschal candle) makes a similar proclamation:
“How wonderful and beyond our knowing, O God, is your mercy and loving-kindness to us, that to redeem a slave, you gave a Son… How holy is this night, when wickedness is put to flight, and sin is washed away. It restores innocence to the fallen, and joy to those who mourn. It casts out pride and hatred, and brings peace and goodwill.”(2021 HCAC CPB, Easter Vigil)
And we respond: “Glory to you for ever and ever.”
Brothers and Sisters, our Lenten journey to the summit of the Easter Vigil, where we throw on the lights in proclamation of our redemption and Christ’s glorious resurrection, is our reminder that our lives, suffering and all, serve a higher purpose.
God did not stop sin because to do so would violate our free will, and thus rob us of the very love which we now enjoy through faith in His Son Jesus Christ. Jesus was not God hitting the divine “undo” button when He sent His Son. No, He was in the mystery of His perfect Will redeeming our fallen human nature to an eternal glory that surpasses anything we could ever imagine. The free gift of eternal life in Christ Jesus is far greater than that original sin.
As Saint Paul wrote in our passage from Romans for 1 Lent: “But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many” (Romans 5:15).
Beloved, the victory that Christ won over sin has given us greater blessings than those which sin had taken away from us. Let Lent be a reminder to us that there is a much higher purpose that exists beyond our mortal pain, as we march on to the joy of our Easter Vigil in this life, and eternal reward in the next. O happy fault!
Image: Rafael, The Transfiguration (1516-1520), detail