Like many of its sister ancient churches of the East, the Armenian Apostolic Church lays special emphasis on the season of Great Lent as a “school” for personal spirituality. Adherents are guided on a kind of “pilgrimage of the soul,” with each Sunday of Lent dedicated to a story from Scripture, based in a parable of Jesus, or in prophecies concerning him.
The first of the seriesthe Sunday of the Expulsionseems, at first, to be an outlier with no direct link to the life of Jesus. But I would suggest that there is actually a deep connection herethat, in fact, the Sunday of the Expulsion invites us to consider Jesus’s exile in the wilderness as a kind of recapitulation of Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden.
Let us start with the Expulsion. It concerns what happened after the Fall, on the day after Eden, and is the story of man’s first experience of poverty: his first feeling of material and spiritual want. These conditions are sketched out at the end of the third chapter of Genesis (Gn 3:1424).
God’s first words are directed, not to a human being, but to an animal: the serpent. “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed” (Gn 3:15). This is our first hint that the Edenic “peaceable kingdom” is at an end. In the new condition, there will be no more harmony between man and nature; to the contrary, there will be competition and feareven hatred.
God directs his next remarks at the first woman (still unnamed at this point). He warns her that “Your desire shall be to your husband, and he shall rule over you” (Gn 3:16). Whether or not we take this as normative for domestic arrangements, the broader idea being advanced here is that henceforth the exiled world will be a place of rulers and subjects, “haves” and “have-nots.”
Finally, to Adam God says: “In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread . . . [for] you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gn 3:19). Man is warned that the exiled world will be a place of toil, of meagerness; a place that never lets man forget that in the end, he is nothing.
And with that, our first parents are expelled from the Garden of Eden: from the place of abundance, ease, and eternal life to one of emptiness, toil, and (the most terrible of burdens) death. To ensure that man can never return, the entry to Eden is blocked by the Cherubimnot pretty angels, but terrible supernatural monsterswho will “guard the way to the tree of life” (Gn 3:24).
How does all of this tie in to the life of Christ? Just as the Expulsion describes mankind’s introduction to poverty, so Jesus, as the opening act of his ministry, goes to the place most associated with poverty: the desert.
In the “cursing” passage in Genesis 3, God warned that man and nature would inherit a relationship of mutual hostilitythat man and certain animals would actively seek to destroy each other. But in the Gospel of Mark’s very brief mention of Jesus’s sojourn in the wilderness, we receive the striking line that Jesus “was with the wild beasts” (Mk 1:13): evidently a restoration of the “peaceable kingdom,” in a setting where the faunasnakes, scorpions, scavengersis otherwise deadly to man.
In Genesis, God had warned that under the Expulsion, one person would rule over another. But in the Temptation, Jesus explicitly refuses to rule over anyone. Offered by Satan dominion over “all the kingdoms of the world,” Jesus rebukes him with the words: “You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve” (Lk 4:8, Mt 4:10). This astonishing sentimentin effect, that God is the only being fit to rule over otherscuts to the root of hierarchical orders.
God warned Adam in Genesis, “In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread.” We find that bread features in the Temptation story, as well. But Satan’s words“command these stones to become loaves of bread” (Mt 4:3, slightly varied at Lk 4:3)are now the negation of God’s assertion to Adam, replacing work with some kind of miracle. Jesus’s refusal, with the words “Man shall not live by bread alone” (Mt 4:4, Lk 4:4), serves to accept the divinely-ordained connection between bead and toil, while also addressing the larger question of nourishment in relation to man’s physical and spiritual neediness.
Finally, we recall that in Genesis, our last vision of Eden included the Cherubim: supernatural creatures blocking the return path to Paradise, set there by God to “guard the way to the tree of life.” This idea of guarding or protecting something valuable resurfaces in the Temptation account, when Satan challenges Jesus to throw himself from a great height (Mt 4:57, Lk 4:912). Satan’s point is that angelsGod’s supernatural agentswill guard Jesus and protect him from injury.
But Jesus refuses to be protected by supernatural means. He chooses, in effect, to be vulnerable, injurable, like any other man. But for that very reason, Jesus will also be approachable. The parallel with the Expulsion illuminates the subtle point. Unlike the protected Tree of Life in Eden, from which man is eternally cut off, Jesus will be a new Tree of Life whose pathway is unguarded, unprotectedso that man can draw near.
By leading us to view these two stories together, the ancient Christian tradition helps us to appreciate the depth of our human intimacy with Jesus. Throughout the Temptation, Jesus is being tempted to live as a god; but at every point, he chooses to live as a manto embrace the burdens mankind has borne since the days of the Expulsion.
This is the seed from which Lent grows: We will choose to live like Jesus, because he first chose to live like us.
Christopher H. Zakian is the communications director of the Eastern Diocese of the Armenian Church of America.