At the start of Lent, we heard that very familiar story from Genesis where the serpent temps Eve to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and paradise seems lost. It’s a striking allegory that I have heard many times, yet I love that I am still finding new things to ponder folded into the story. As a child, this story (often told in Sunday school using those ubiquitous felt board bible figures) was full dread. The beauty of the garden seemed to crack with the bite of an “apple” which was followed by the expulsion of Adam and Eve by an angry God. I was always left with a feeling that things were hopeless for humans after that exchange, as their lives now included suffering and death on account of their disobedience. This seemed like a perfect place to begin Lent, if you felt Lent was only about penitence and atonement. But I no longer see Lent as only about penitence and atonement. I now see an invitation to explore and grow in my faith, by examining the very challenges which seem to hinder my spiritual evolution.
Yes, Adam and Eve disobeyed God, and yes, there were real consequences. But this story if far from simply being a parental scolding. I believe this story helps us understand that every new piece of knowledge, and I mean every new piece, is both a blessing and a burden. The tree was not called ‘The Tree of Good and Evil’ but, “The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.” Before Adam and Eve ate of that tree, they existed in total mindfulness with creation. They had no understanding of mortality (though I believe it still actually existed) and they had no understanding of how to compare themselves as individuals to each other and the world around them; no self-awareness. They simply existed; much the way animals do. By consuming the fruit of the tree, they became self-aware. You might say, the ego was born, and they found themselves struggling to reconcile this new knowledge into the world view they previously held. In the text, we see that the new awareness being thrust to the forefront of their minds was fear and shame. They hid from God and were ashamed of their nakedness. What had changed? Ethical awareness and the awareness of mortality is a pretty huge thing to process if it’s entirely new to you. Their world view had forever changed as they felt, for the first time, burdened by this new information. They could no longer exist in the garden– not as “punishment” but because they now had to do the work of learning how to reconcile that knowledge into their way of living and being.
The rest of the biblical narrative exhibits an arching message of how, in fact, we can learn to live with that knowledge without it being a burden. The journey God shares with humans in the Hebrew bible, shows us that we can bear the reality of death (physical and egoic) without losing ourselves and our relationship with God in the process. Jesus’ entire reason for coming is to better illustrate that same road to salvation and spiritual awareness by showing the us the “way” we can die, yet live.
Ultimately, that Genesis story sets us on a trajectory towards greater spiritual evolution. Some would argue that very evolution was designed to happen, no matter what, and Adam and Eve simply “jumped the gun.” We need not be left feeling hopeless by the story of the garden, or we have fallen into the same mind-made trap that Adam and Eve experienced. We can learn to see that each step in our spiritual journey, each challenge, brings us closer to the heart of God. Until we can eventually see that we never “left” God to begin with. The writer of the Book of Revelation gives us a final image of the city of God with a tree, not a temple, at the center, just as in Eden. Things seem to come full circle.
What a perfect place to begin the season of Lent– setting us on a path where we can examine our struggles, knowing that we have a way through them in order to mature, to grow, to evolve, and to never forget that we can eventually let go of the burden of knowing our own failing and death, and see that it is just another step on our road to knowing and loving God more deeply. In the end, each time we wake up more fully, we are being liberated into the Truth of God and that it something worth knowing.