Original Sin

Today I would like to begin talking about the problem that we face as people of faith in the world. Remember we are the Church Militant. So what are we fighting? We are fighting sin, and we are fighting from a disadvantaged position. And this is the problem that Jesus came in human form to fix when he came to redeem us on the Cross in his Passion and Resurrection. The problem we are dealing with is the problem of sin.

When we talk about sin we really have to talk about two different categories of sin. There is something called Original Sin, which affects everyone in the human race, and there is something called Actual Sin, which is all those times we do what we know to be wrong but we do it anyway.

Original Sin is a concept most commonly associated with St. Augustine of Hippo, and theologians who don’t fully understand the concept or just don’t like the idea frequently attribute St. Augustine’s writings on Original Sin as a psychological consequence of his pre-conversion life of sexual immorality. But Orginal Sin is not at its core a sexual thing. It’s a pride thing. Pride – and its partners, envy and presumption – is at the heart of how we can understand the concept of Original Sin.

The first book of the Bible is Genesis, and it opens with the origins of mankind and the original relationship we had with our creator. As you may already know, there are two creation stories back to back, the first focusing on the physical elements and finally the creation of human persons, and the second – though Bible scholars say it is actually the older story – starting with the male human person and concluding with his perfect partner, the female human person. One of our diocesean priests, Fr. Llane Briese, pointed out that the Book of Genesis is regular prose, just straightforward declarative sentences and syntax until it gets to the point when the Lord God took the rib from Adam and with it formed the woman. When Adam sees the woman, he breaks into poetry. The gift of a suitable helpmate, a partner for life, was so great the man burst into song. And the chapter ends with a description of their idyllic existence: “And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed.” [Gn 2:25].

But things took a turn for the worse in the next chapter, when the serpent shows up and starts chatting with the woman. Notice how the serpent, which we understand is Satan, the Adversary, doesn’t force himself upon the woman. He just asks a couple of questions. “Did God say you shall not eat from ANY tree in the garden? Notice how suddenly God’s instructions sound so contraining: no trees! 

But the woman explains that only one tree is forbidden. And it is forbidden because it is deadly; it’s fruit is poisonous. It turns out God said “yes” to everything else. That’s a far cry from “no trees” but the Devil is very skilled at phrasing his questions. So what is really a helpful protective instruction is recast as an unjust limitation on our autonomy.

And we get in the Bible the first indication of why Jesus called the Devil the “Father of Lies.” Here in the third chapter of the first book of the Bible, he tells the woman a whopper of a lie: “You won’t die! You’ll be like God, knowing good and evil.” He appeals to her pride, her presumption and her envy. And she reconsiders everything.

And the surface features of the fruit look great. It’s nutritious. It’s pretty. And it’s a short-cut to wisdom. How easily she is distracted from the fundamental reality of the fruit: that it is deadly. So, she eats some and offers it to Adam. And Adam, knowing everything the woman knows, goes along with her and eats it, too. Adam is supposed to protect his wife from all dangers, and here he is unwilling even to object to the lies of the Devil, and equally unwilling to stand up for the truth of God even if it means marital discord.

After eating the fruit, their eyes are opened, and they suddenly have shame over the same nakedness that they did not have prior to eating the fruit. And they hide from God. They hide from the same God who breathed life into them, who made them from clay, who walked with them in the cool of the evening. They know on some interior level that they no longer fit in the Garden of Eden. They seem to understand that they do not belong in the same harmonious relationship with God they had before eating the fruit.

I cut out of the chapter the dialogue between God and the serpent, and between God and the man and the woman. But the end result is that God shows he does in fact respect our freedom. He respects our freedom even when it goes against his will. He did not create us to be separated from him. We chose to separate ourselves when we chose to listen to the lies of the serpent and obey his instructions instead of God’s instructions. For Adam and Eve are us. Adam just means “man” and we learn from the scripture that Eve means “Mother of all living.” Since we chose to live in a condition that separates us from God’s presence, he sent us out from the Garden of Eden and allowed our lives that had been honorable work and cooperation to be marked by toil and domination.

And we can never go back by our own power. Most of the rest of the Old Testament is story after story of the chosen people – us – being helped along by a great prophet or leader and then not being faithful to God and his ways. He sends his prophets to warn us, and the ones we don’t kill we drop into a cistern or chase out of town. He sends angels and columns of fire to protect us and we whine about how good it was when we were slaves in Egypt. He gives us a special land, and we mingle with the locals and adopt their pagan religious practices. Finally, he sends his own son to take all our sins upon himself and sacrifice himself on the Cross for us. The sins of mankind should be redeemed by a man, but only a god could pay the price, so God became Man and redeemed us all.

You have probably noticed that the serpent – an evil spirit – was already there in the Garden of Eden and chirping in Eve’s ear when she walked by the tree with the forbidden fruit. So, where and how did those evil spirits get there?

Scripture speaks in a few places about the evil spirits that prowl about the world seeking the ruin of souls. And a further development of this theology occurred later. But we can see that there was some kind of rebellion among the spirits which God made, which is a reminder that these spirits are not corporeal — they do not have bodies — but they are spiritual — they have intellect and will. Some chose, as John Milton put it in his epic poem Paradise Lost, “Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heaven.” This kind of imagery is certainly supported by the verse here from the Book of Wisdom. Envy is sadness at the good of the other. Pride is the opposite of humility. And St. John shows us in his letter that the disobedience of the spirits seems to have come before that of mankind. So we have a sense that even in the Garden of Eden God gave his children the freedom to choose between good and evil, between life and death.

Not all the spirits were or are evil, as one of the great Arch-angels, Michael, is shown here — and in many other works of art — defeating the Devil. There is a picture like this above the choir loft in our church, and we say his prayer after every Mass.

From the Gospel of Matthew we have one of the great lines Jesus said: “Get thee behind me Satan.” And he said it to the guy he had just said was the rock upon which he would build his Church, and he promised the gates of Hell would not prevail upon it. But here Peter is on the verge of denying the power of God and getting ready to insist that God’s plan is not the best plan. Even the Rock of the Church is — before the Sacrifice on Calvary — unable to rest in the presence of God and trust his providence but feels compelled to have everything make sense to him. That is the same place Adam and Eve were when looking at the forbidden fruit. If it doesn’t make sense to me, then it’s wrong. That kind of mentality puts us where God ought to be, but that is the mentality of the Original Sin.

And St. Paul makes crystal clear in his letter to the Romans that everybody after Adam and Eve inherits the consequences of their decision. The Original Sin happened at the origin of mankind, and nobody escapes it. We all fall short of the glory of God, thanks to our decision in the Garden way back when.

During the very early days of the Church, infant baptism was not the normal way people joined the Church, though we have in stories from Acts like the one about the centurion where the whole family is baptized, so infants certainly were baptised. But we should remember that the Church was persecuted by the Jews and by the Romans until nearly 300 years after the Crucifixion. So, most people came into the Church as adults and were baptized at that age.

But everyone naturally understands that an infant is not capable of committing a sin since they don’t know what is right and what is wrong. This is why St. Cyprian of Carthage — which is just across the Mediterranean Sea from the bottom of Italy — could distinguish between the instance of actual sin and the condition of Original Sin.

And St. Augustine wrote a lot on the doctrine of Original Sin as he was contesting the claims of Pelagius. Pelagius taught that humans could gain entry to Heaven by their own merit. He basically said a person can be good enough to go to Heaven. St. Augustine said that was impossible, and he pointed to the story from the Garden of Eden to support his teaching. Building on what we just read from the letter of St. Paul to the Romans, that “Sin came into the world through one man and death through sin” (Rm 5:12), St. Augustine makes the claim that had Adam not sinned, he would have entered into Heaven rather than being “divested of his body” which is another way of saying he died. When we die, our soul is separated from our body. St. Augustine teaches that Adam’s sin brought with it death for everyone. Because of Adam’s sin, everyone is born outside the Garden. Everyone is clothed with mortality instead of immortality, and with corruption instead of incorruption. Augustine argued that our fallen state was so intrinsic that even the idea of doing something good was itself a gift of God’s grace. So deeply are we inclined to sin thanks to the original sin of Adam that the process of even considering to do something good starts with the gift of God’s grace.

St. Augustine distinguished between the sin associated with acts of individual humans and the sin that left us in our fallen state. He calls it “the one sin in and by which all have sinned.”

As we are all the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve, we inherited from them their state when they started to have children. That state is outside the Garden of Eden. Their first children, Cain and Abel, were conceived and born after Adam and Eve were put outside the Garden, and in short order one son killed the other out of resentment. This helps us remember that like Cain and Abel, we are all conceived and born outside the relationship God intended for us. We are all born outside the Garden. Not a one of us — except the immaculate conception of our Blessed Mother Mary — was conceived without Original Sin.

Now, being born with Original Sin might not be such a terrible thing except for the mark it has left and the burden under which we must all live. While the distance between us and God is closed through the sacrament of Baptism, the burden of concupiscence remains. Baptism heals the wound of the Original Sin in which we are all conceived and born, but the scar tissue of concupiscence remains. Baptism means that we can now say “Yes” to God, but concupiscence means that “Yes” doesn’t always come easily.

Concupiscence is that inclination toward wickedness that we all can see within ourselves and in others. It’s why little boys pull the wings off of flies. It’s why big boys try to get cozy with girls who are not their wives. It’s why people choose to tell a lie when they know the truth. It’s why we don’t share anything of our own, even if we have more than we need. It’s why our anger turns to wrath. It’s why our enjoyment of good food turns into gluttony. It is our disordered passions ungoverned by our intellect and faith.

That last point is perhaps the most important point for Catholics to consider. The fact that we mentioned disordered passions ungoverned by intellect and faith implies that passions can have a good order and they can be governed. St. Augustine carried on the teaching of the Apostles when he rebuked the heretic Pelagius for his claim that we can govern our passions so well that we earn our way into Heaven. Augustine said it all flows from God’s grace.

But Augustine would have rebuked the heretic Martin Luther for his claim that thanks to Adam and Eve we are totally broken and hopelessly beyond repair. Martin Luther was a depressive, and his vision of our condition he likened to “snow-covered piles of dung.” We were made dung by the original sin, and that’s all we ever could be, and Jesus gave us a pretty cover over our evil natures and our faith in Him is how we get saved and gain entry into Heaven. Augustine might have told Luther to look at Augustine’s own life as recorded in his famous book, the Confessions, and see how a man who led a thoroughly dissipated life changed his behavior after his baptism and learned to control his passions through his intellect and his faith. It’s a bit odd to me that Martin Luther was an Augustinian monk and still saw things the way he did.

St. Augustine would completely endorse the quote from the Second Vatican Council document on the modern world. “Finding himself in the midst of the battlefield man has to struggle to do what is right.” We’re not Pelagians; we don’t think we can operate ourselves right into Heaven. But we are not Lutherans either; we do think we can “co-operate” ourselves into Heaven by working with God’s grace. We are not inert piles of dung. We are living, choosing, thinking, praying human persons born into a fallen world but pointed to the risen world redeemed by the risen Christ.

We are the Church Militant. We are the battlers. But we are also the battlefield on which the battle for our souls will be fought and decided.

Original sin explains why we start where we start and why we start at a disadvantage with concupiscence to weigh us down as we try to follow Christ.

Next week, I’d like to talk about Actual Sin, and how we go about choosing not to do God’s will in discrete moments. Those little battles we either win or lose with the Devil are moments when we come face to face with the temptation to commit Actual Sin.

After a couple of weeks of looking at the problem of Original Sin and Actual Sin, we will turn to the solution, which is the Cross of Jesus and the life of grace. As Christians, we should always remember that the battle has already been won, and we are on the winning team. God has given us the gift of salvation, and all we have to do is accept the gift. It’s just that the Devil never gives up, so we have to be alert and vigilant all the time.

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