Stories of the great human migrations have always fascinated me. In my imagination I have pictured these migrations as mighty epic adventures in which groups of eager and daring explorers ventured on long journeys into the unknown, risking everything to discover what lay beyond the horizon.
When I began to read more widely about human evolution, I realized my mistake. I even remember the phrase that changed my perceptions. The writer had mentioned, almost in passing, how overcrowding would have led a few families to move on a bit farther in search of more space to live, a phenomenon he described as simply “moving a few yards farther along the beach.” Over the millennia, of course, these few yards became migration patterns that would extend across half the globe. This was not about heroic journeys at all but about simply moving on, one yard at a time.
And that might have been the end of it, had a Lenten reflection I heard recently not brought back my migratory thoughts. The speaker happened to comment on what she called “the fall from temptation into action,” a fall that Jesus, of course, conspicuously resisted. And this in turn reminded me of something else I had heard from a young man, who appeared in every way to be loving, caring and gentle, but felt moved suddenly to hold forth on how humanity had fallen catastrophically into what he called “utter depravity.” I don’t believe that I am the only Christian who has difficulty getting my head around this claim in a world in which I also see so much goodness.
While I find it hard to buy into the depravity theory—especially when I look at innocent infants who have yet to make a conscious choice at all, let alone a depraved one—I can very easily identify with the homilist’s observation of how disastrously easy it is to fall that one small step, from temptation into action.
Jesus must surely have had this in mind when he warned his followers that an underlying attitude of seething resentment or unjustified anger can lead that one step too far, from the temptation to destroy another person into the act of murder, or how a lustful fantasy can all too easily lead to infidelity, seduction or rape.
One small step! Falling isn’t just the big event in the Garden of Eden, but the multitude of much smaller events that happen moment by moment in ordinary human lives. We can do something about these. We can notice the subtle inner movements that might be pushing us closer to dangerous edges and work against them. It is only possible through grace, of course, but at least the challenge now becomes human-sized.
But if we can fall so easily, one step at a time, through one little choice, what about the rising?
While I was halfway through writing this column my computer’s operating system chose, without warning, to install updates. In an instant, my freshly written column faded into oblivion, and my computer powered down while my uninvited updates were processed. And whose fault was that? No prizes for guessing I had neglected to press “save”! My first instinct was to call the software providers to complain about their unwanted, mid-morning updates. I resisted the urge to turn my temptation into action (more through laziness than virtue, it has to be said), made myself a cup of tea and reflected instead on what I could learn from the experience. Now, on this second attempt, I have saved after every second sentence.
I think rising is a bit like that. Of course, in this joyous season, we celebrate the great transcendence in Jesus of life over death. But we are also invited to participate in resurrection in our own lives, moment by moment, choice by choice. We will meet those inner movements of temptation every day, and they have the power to drag us down into the worst that we can be. But the save button is always there. We activate it whenever we ask ourselves: In this situation, will I follow my temptations and fall a step further away from the best I can be, or will I turn my eyes toward the light of Christ in my heart and choose, instead, to rise with him, a little bit closer to all that God believes I can become?
On the human scale, falling, like rising, happens one small step at a time. A few small steps in one lifetime make for great movements in the story of humanity.