March 1, 2020
“First communion day is the happiest day of your life because of the Collection and James Cagney at the Lyric Cinema.” Thus, begins one of the most wondrous moments in the Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Angela’s Ashes. Frank McCourt continues: The night before I was so excited, I couldn’t sleep, till dawn. I’d still be sleeping if my grandmother hadn’t come banging at the door.
“Get up! Get up! Get that child outa the bed. Happiest day of his life an’him snorin’ above in the bed.” I ran to the kitchen. “Take off that shirt,” she said. I took off the shirt and she pushed me into a tin tub of icy cold water. My mother scrubbed me, and my grandmother scrubbed me. I was raw. I was red. They dried me. They dressed me in my black velvet First Communion suit with the white frilly shirt, the short pants, the white stockings, the black patent leather shoes. Around my arm they tied a white satin bow and on my lapel they pinned the Sacred Heart of Jesus, a picture of the Sacred Heart, with blood dripping from it, flames erupting all around it and on top, a nasty-looking crown of thorns.
“Come here till I comb your hair,” said Grandma. “Look at that mop, it won’t lie down. You didn’t get that hair from my side of the family. That’s that North of Ireland hair you got from your father. That’s the kind of hair you see on Presbyterians. If your mother had married a proper Limerickman you wouldn’t have this standing up, North of Ireland, Presbyterian hair.” She spat twice on my head. “Grandma, will you please stop spitting on my head.” “If you have anything to say, shut up. A little spit won’t kill you. Come on, we’ll be late for the Mass.
We ran to the church. My mother panted along behind with Michael in her arms. We arrived at the church just in time to see the last of the boys leaving the altar rail where the priest stood with the chalice and the host, glaring at me. Then he placed on my tongue the wafer, the body and blood of Jesus. At last, at last. It’s on my tongue. I draw it back. It stuck. I had God glued to the roof of my mouth. I could hear the minister’s voice, “Don’t let that host touch your teeth, for if you bite God in two, you’ll roast in hell for eternity.” I tried to get God down with my tongue, but the priest hissed at me. “Stop that clucking and get back to your seat.”
God was good. He melted and I swallowed Him and now, at last, I was a member of the True Church, an official sinner. Things didn’t get better for Frank McCourt that day for after breakfast he got sick. He continues: She dragged me through the streets of Limerick. She told the neighbors and passing strangers and pushed me into the confession box. “In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Bless me Father, for I have sinned. It’s a day since my last confession.” “A day? And what sines have you committed in a day, my child?” “I overslept. I nearly missed my First Communion. My grandmother says I have standing up, North of Ireland, Presbyterian hair. I threw up my first communion after breakfast. Now Grandma says she has God in her backyard and what should she do?”
“Ah…ah…ah, tell your grandmother to wash God away with a little water and for your penance say one Hail Mary and on Our Father. Say a prayer for me and God bless you, my child.” I asked mam, “Can I go now and make the Collection? I want to see James Cagney.” Grandma says, “You can forget about the Collection and James Cagney because you’re not a proper Catholic the way you left God on the ground. Come on, go home.” Frank McCourt did get into the Lyric Theater to see James Cagney but only after he committed one more sin on that first communion day. It would not be his last.
I do believe there is no word in all the world that is more misunderstood than sin. Frank McCourt’s story of Irish Catholic sin is simply a variation on a theme that can be found in every denomination, in every corner of Christendom. In fact, we are obsessed with the identification of sins. In 1958, there was a book published by the title Sins of the Day. It consisted of sins, divided into categories such as “The Teacher” “The Manager” “Unmarried People” “The Lawyer” – overcharging was one of those sins – and even, “The Minister.” Some sins included: Overstaying one’s welcome, behaving in a vain manner, refusing to fill in forms on the grounds that they are a waste of time. One sin was not keeping one’s desk tidy.
Even among good balanced Anglicans, there is confusion: some want to hold fast to narrow Catholic sin, others want to dismiss sin as a holdover from a less enlightened era. But virtually all miss the point. We rehearse the story of The Fall every year – several times a your and still we don’t get it. The first thing you need to know is that the Hebrew people did not give a definition of sin in Genesis, they told a story, the story of Adam – humankind – and Adama, the earth, the soil. The Hebrew language simply doesn’t allow for abstractions – this is the story of how things came to be the way they are. The narrative is told in poetic form, lost to us in most translations.
Two things stand out – the man and the women chose not to trust God and instead sought to be like God! The second thing we must remember is that these characters are our ancestors. Like North Ireland, Presbyterian hair, we are stuck with them. Their sin and ours is our unwillingness to accept the limitations of our humanity – abandoning it for dreams of grandeur and the seductive lie that we can be like God. The nature of sin is that it separates us from God, from one another, from creation and from self. To argue over whether or not a particular thing is sin is to miss the point. The reality is that we ARE separated. The Bible is the story of how that separation is overcome and how we are restored.
That leads to today’s Gospel reading. We leap ahead, leaving the man and the woman in order to meet another ancestor. There is someone else who has claimed us as his kin, and we hear his story today. How the Spirit lead him not into a garden but into the wilderness, where he, too, was tested, only he passed. His test was harder. There was nothing clear cut as a tree to stay away from and no specific instruction from God about what or what not to do. Yet somehow, he managed to say no to three tantalizing possibilities and came out of the desert the same person he had been when he in, he was the beloved Son of God.
There was a line draw in this story as clearly as there was in the first one. Jesus could play God or he could remain human. He could go buzzing around in the air, turning the desert into a gourmet bakery or he could keep his feet on the ground and live with the ache in the pit of his stomach, as hungry and tired as anyone would be after a six-week fast.
Adam stepped over the line and found humanity cursed, Jesus stayed behind the line and made humanity a blessing. One man trespassed – the other stayed put. One tried to be God, the other was content to be a human being. And the irony is that the one who tried to be God did not do too well as a human being, while the one who was content to be human became known as the Son of God.
So, here we are – children of Adam and brothers and sisters of Jesus. Sinners and redeemed. Fallen and saved. That’s the story and it must be told in its entirety – full of the complexity of a great drama. It is, in fact, the greatest story ever told and all of it matters. In this season of self-discipline and preparation, take time to consider your ancestry. Look in that mirror and see. See Adam and Eve, naked and hiding, see that North of Ireland, Presbyterian hair – unruly and out of control. And then, take a closer look, you may not be ab le to see it with the naked eye, but for those who have eyes to see and hearts to believe it is there. It is the sign of salvation for all of us – a small cross, lightly drawn across the forehead of humanity – for remember the rest of the story: There was once born in David’s royal city a savior and while we were yet sinners he came and lived for us and died for us and marked us as his own forever.
As we move through this season of Lent, accept your humanity and your ancestors. And remember above all things, there is nothing that can separate you from the love of God. For in the words of Paul to the Romans: For I am convinced that neither death, not life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.