The Two Adams

We think that Paradise and Calvary,
         Christ’s cross, and Adam’s tree, stood in one place;
Look, Lord, and find both Adams met in me;
         As the first Adam’s sweat surrounds my face,
         May the last Adam’s blood my soul embrace.
This part of the poem “To God my God in my Sickness” by John Donne (1572-1631) speaks well to the drama that we encounter in this time of Lent, to which the Church’s readings for the First Sunday of Lent draw our attention.  This is the Sunday of the Temptation of the Lord after his 40-day fast, and of the victory over temptation and the devil that is our hope.  St. Augustine encourages us, “See yourself as tempted in him, and see yourself as victorious in him.”
Donne’s poem draws our attention to the ancient idea that Christ’s Cross and Adam’s Tree (the tree of the knowledge of good and evil from which Adam and Eve ate) stood in the same place.  Another idea is that the wood of the Cross was somehow connected to the wood of Adam’s tree: that the same tree, or its seed, was eventually cut down to make the wood of Christ’s Cross.
The “one place” where Adam and Christ stand are in the end the human nature, which God formed from dust and the breathe of His Spirit and which Christ assumed in His Incarnation.  This is what Adam and Christ have in common: human nature, the human drama, into which all of us are born.  This is why Christ is called Adam, which in Hebrew simply means “man” or “humanity”.  Saint Paul calls Christ “the second Adam”, meaning that in Him begins something new, a new creation.


We, thus, find ourselves in the midst of this drama of the two “Adams”.  The drama of temptation and of our victory over temptation in Christ touches our human freedom and the choices we make.  We gain a sense of where we stand in relation to the old Adam and the New Adam.  Lent is a time to gauge our progress to the New Adam or our regress to the old Adam, and to choose again the New Adam, our new life in Him.

At this point, though, we run across another reality.  Before I ever get to the point of choosing, of moving one way or the other, I remember that I am “chosen”.  This being-chosen runs in two directions.  On the negative side, I realize that my freedom has been damaged before I ever got the chance to use it; this is called “original sin”.  Its most powerful expression comes from St Paul in his letter to the Romans:

For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.  Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me.  So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand.  For I delight in the law of God, in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin which dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?  Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!  (Romans 7:19-25)

Paul’s last phrase points to the positive side of our being chosen: God did not just leave us in the situation into which Adam got us.  He sent the “second Adam” to re-create us, to love us back to life and into the eternal embrace of love that God is (the Trinity).

“Look, Lord, and find both Adams met in me.”  Before any choice we ever make, there has already been a word spoken about us, a path chosen for us.  The path of the old Adam lead to death, but the New Adam came to die and to rise, to bring us with Him home to the Father’s house.  But that is not fair!  Is there nothing for me to do?

The fact that we cannot choose everything for ourselves is as obvious as the fact that if mom decided to wait until she fed me, to make sure it was what I wanted, I would not have lived very long.  The infinite, autonomous self is an illusion; we have all been “inserted” into a time, a place, a family, a culture, that was not of our choosing.  In the same way, the story of salvation was going on long before I chose to enter it.

And yet, as St Augustine says, “God who created you without you, does not want to save you without you.”  Our choosing has infinite consequences.  We have to decide for or against the story that God wants to write with our lives.  We have to choose which of the words “spoken” and “chosen” for us will dominate in us: the old Adam or the New Adam.

In Baptism, we or our parents and godparents, responded “I do!” to the New Adam, who proposed to us a fullness of life and holiness and freedom and grace.  God is so powerful that He can overcome the “no” of sin with His faithful “yes”.  In this Lent, we are begging Christ that our “yes” to Him will establish us in such a way that we will be able to overcome the old Adam and the evil one who tempted that old Adam and tempts us.


The Good News is that this is the one thing Jesus Christ wants to do for us.  He wants to establish us in His grace and in true freedom, the freedom that comes (in a rather paradoxical way) when we entrust ourselves completely to Christ.  We believe that Christ is more powerful than the devil, and that the New Adam can really overcome everything of the old Adam in us.  That is why we can pray with confidence those last lines of Donne:

As the first Adam’s sweat surrounds my face,
May the last Adam’s blood my soul embrace.
And we will pray with the whole Church at the Easter Vigil: “O happy fault, that earned for us so great, so glorious a Redeemer!”  Thanks be to God, through our Lord Jesus Christ!

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