Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Garden Fence (Immaculate Conception, December 8)

This is my homily for December 8, 2009, Feast of the Immaculate Conception. Feel free to respond with comments. View the Mass readings at:

Jumping over fences is part of the lives of many children. We, as children, jump over fences even if there is a gate nearby.

We also jump over fences late at night, say, to go swimming especially if we are pretty sure we will not get caught.

I introduce this, however, not to discuss trespassing that I may or may not have done in younger days; but, rather to suggest an approach to the Book of Genesis, Chapter 3, the fall of Adam and Eve.

We can understand the Garden of Eden episode if we consider the image of a fence.

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This image was introduced in a sermon by John Henry Newman in the 19th century. I was not there to hear it. It is called “The State of Innocence.” (Volume 5, Sermon 8, Parochial and Plain Sermons)

You might say, the state of innocence is not only a mental or spiritual condition. But, the state of innocence is also a place and time with fences, with boundaries.
And, it may take some jumping, some reaching to see over the fence.

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First, Newman observes Adam and Eve are fenced into the Garden of Eden. And, they are fenced in there alone.

Newman further observes that Adam and Eve are fenced into the Garden of Eden in the way that a child is fenced into the existence of childhood. Children are kept behind gates, placed in car seats, high chairs.

Their world can be quite circumscribed. But, they don’t necessarily mind as long as they perceive freedom. Close the door, a child will want to open it. Keep it open; and he may or may not go through it.

A child is fenced in. And, a child is alone behind the fence.

Newman observes that the situation of Adam/Eve and the situation of a child are quite similar. Both are alone, in solitude. But, they are not necessarily scared of this solitude.

It simply is their existence.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that mom/dad leave their children alone. Rather, remember that a child of 5 years old or younger is really only starting to understand the larger world. And, a child of 6 months is in a paradise where he is the only person on the face of the earth.

A child at this age has no ability to restrain his desire for food or comfort. There is no other 911 than his own. So, the child is alone an quite happy about it. Solitude and satisfaction.

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Children are fenced off from the world just as Adam and Eve are fenced off in the Garden of Eden.

As we grow up, one of the things we dream of is independence: getting our way; getting past the fences; removing the fences. Or, at least, putting the boundaries where I want them to be. I don’t want someone else telling me what to do.

And, this is where the serpent comes into the garden, suggesting that Adam and Eve are really quite restricted, really fenced in.
“Did God really tell you not to eat from any of the trees in garden?”

There is deception in the opening question which contradicts God’s exact words: “You are free to eat from any of the trees of the garden except the tree of knowledge of good and evil.” (Genesis 2:17-18).

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At the end of episode, Eve complains, “the serpent tricked me into it.” Adam, on the other hand, well, we know who he blames. And, the serpent is the only one who is reverently silent before God. The serpent is the only one who does not talk back.

In the New Testament letter of James, we read that we are called to both belief and action, to both faith and works. The letter of James is saying that even the evil spirits believe in God and says … “you believe that God is one – even the demons believe that and tremble” (James 2:19)

So, we are called to belief and to action. And, to pray that God will help us in our choices and discernment of good and evil. We are also called to pray for each other. And, to love, support, and pray for young people who might be easily deceived.

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Jesus says in the Gospel, “unless you be converted, and become as little children, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:3)

Is this easier said than done?

That is, as we grow, Newman writes, “we have passions, aims, principles, views, duties which children have not. Still however we must become as little children, in them we are bound to see Christian perfection and to labour for Christian perfection with them in our eye.”

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“To labour for Christian perfection with them in our eye.”

We are looking ahead to December 25th. And, we look ahead with a child in our eye. We look ahead to a child, the Christ child, keeping him in sight.

And, Christmas is all about childhood. Christmas is about welcoming the Christ child whom we are called to identify with. We are called to love him, embrace him. And, gradually as we learn about him, we present the Christ child to the world through our own lives.

Christmas is also about remembering and giving thanks for our own childhood.

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What are we moving toward in Christian life, as adults?

It is repentance, it is self-examination. This involves learning from our own experience. And, as adults, we have to learn from the negative experiences so as to stay on the right road. For example, we learn about generosity by overcoming our own selfishness.

I daresay that a very young child is blissfully unaware of selfishness or selflessness. Let’s say your daughter gives generously; she does so not out of practice or duty. She simply knows this is the right thing to do. And, she does it.

A child is blissfully unaware of being selfish. At least, I am sure I was until I either consciously and mentally compared myself to others or I was told, “you’re selfish.” So, what we are aiming at – in becoming childlike – in overcoming original sin – is not only a series of actions but rather a habit and power of the mind.

We have to learn from our experiences; or, perhaps to un-learn. Newman describes this as “walking to heaven backwards.”

Newman defines God’s grace as this habit or power of the mind which becomes our moral instinct. Yes, it takes practice. But, ultimately what we are aiming at is the purity of love of 2 people falling in love, or the purity of a mother’s love for her child.

“There is no calculation, no struggle, no self-regards, no investigation of motives. We simply act out of love”. (Newman)

And, this enables us to reach beyond the fence of this world to heaven. And, we pass through the fence of this world every day that we become as little children again.


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