In the time of the ancient Church fathers, people asked many theological questions. One of them was, "Since God did not want Adam and Eve to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge, why did he plant it in the middle of Paradise in the first place?" It could seem as if God was setting a trap for the first human beings, something that would trip them up to make them get in trouble so they could be punished. Sometimes people make rules that work like this, but God never acts this way. His purposes are always good, never deceptive or malicious.
So why was the forbidden tree planted in the middle of the garden? St. Gregory the Theologian says the reason was to give Adam and Eve an opportunity to exercise their freedom of choice. What does this mean? Like St. Irenaeus of Lyons and some of the other Eastern Fathers, Gregory believed that when the first human beings were created they were like children. God intended them to grow into maturity over time. He was planning to educate them in Paradise, to teach them and give them all the help they could possibly need so they would attain the full stature of the image and likeness of their Creator. Then they would share in God's own life, and in freedom and love collaborate with Him in His own activities. If they had cooperated fully with God, Adam and Eve would have come to be fully themselves, as God created them to be. They would have become very creative, in the likeness of God who is boundlessly and inexhaustibly creative, though not by themselves but always in collaboration with God. This joint activity, this human collaboration with God, constitutes the dynamic unfolding of an intimate and ever-growing relationship of love between God and humankind. And this is the very joy and life of Paradise.
But since the first people were childlike, they needed to learn little by little how to collaborate with God. They had to give their free will exercise, to practice how to use it rightly. The right way to use it is to obey God's will more and more consciously and freely. The first lesson God offered to Adam and Eve was the commandment not to eat of the forbidden tree. They could have learned it by looking at the tree and thinking to themselves, "The tree is beautiful. Its fruit is good to eat. But God told me not to eat from it. I love God and know He is wise. I do not know why He said this, but I trust His judgment, so I will not eat the fruit." This exercise could be practiced over and over. In this way they would have learned from their own experience how obedience is a great expression of love and self-offering, and how obedience to God is perfect freedom and boundless joy. They could have gone on from this first act of obedience to share more and more fully in God's will, God's life and God's activity, without limit and without end.
Of course Eve, and Adam with her, failed to learn their first lesson in obedience. They pulled themselves away from God's will, and in doing so they became separated from the source of life and were made subject to death. As soon as the choice was made to disobey, the moment the original bond of communion with God and shared activity was broken, the joy of Paradise was already lost.
Our experience of obedience in this fallen world is often very different, and we often find the whole idea of obedience frightening. This is because people sometimes use demands for obedience to attack, torment, and enslave others. Authoritarian dictators, cult leaders, abusive parents, and overbearing bosses seek to impose their own power by crushing the human identity, integrity, wellbeing, freedom, and creativity of others. In our culture, and especially if we know from our own experience how authority can be misused, we often believe that obedience as such is the very opposite of freedom, creativity, and being one's true self. Obedience can be very destructive when it is misused. Yet it can also be used in ways that are creative and life-giving. We must approach it carefully and incrementally, with common sense and discernment, but when enlivened by love, humility and the grace of God it can be a great blessing.
What would it have been like if God had educated Adam and Eve in Paradise? We can never really know. But consider what happens when a good man who is a master carpenter teaches his trade to his son. He begins by having the child hold the tools and help him with small tasks. Little by little the boy learns more and more skills and is given greater responsibilities, until he can collaborate with his father on really creative projects. The father and the son spend lots of time working together over the years, so they also become very close as people and their mutual love matures into lifelong affection and friendship. The boy grows into adulthood not by rebelling against his father but by obeying him, and this leads him to a fullness of creative freedom that is always grounded in a secure relationship of love. At least in part, this must be how God teaches his beloved children. Although we are sinners and are weak and very slow learners, our life in the Church can work the same way when we have good teachers who are loving and humble and respect our freedom and integrity, and who teach us little by little how to obey God.
Yet something more than education was needed to mend the break between God and humankind caused by the disobedience in Paradise. With the grace of the Holy Spirit, there is one human being who chose freely and in great love to learn and practice obedience to God. There is one person who got right what Adam and Eve got wrong. We celebrate today how as a young girl the Theotokos said "yes" to God, "yes" to His mysterious will, "yes" to His plan of salvation for the whole world. Through her obedience, as St. Irenaeus says, the knot of sin, bondage, and death that was tied by Eve, in which we are entangled through our sins, has been unloosed. She has become "the restoration of Adam and deliverance of Eve," and of all their descendants. In her obedience the joy of Paradise is restored. She has become a radiant source of joy to the whole Church, and the Church unceasingly offers her boundless joy in return. Her obedience also brought her sorrow, especially when the sword of grief pierced her heart as she saw her beloved Son crucified. In this fallen world, obedience to God always involves sharing Christ's Cross. Yet her pain, though unimaginably intense, lasted only for a time. Afterward she came to share abundantly and eternally in the joy of Christ's resurrection, a joy far greater than all her sorrows.
Consider what great fruit is borne by her choice to collaborate with God in his activity. Through the eternal plan of the Father and the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit, she brings forth the Son of God in the flesh, one of the Holy Trinity, the Emmanuel, God with us. He comes to save humankind from sin and death, to rescue the world from the curse of fallenness and corruption, and to fashion the universe anew by sharing His own life with everyone and everything. This has come about through the eternal counsel of the Holy Trinity in collaboration with the human freedom, love, and creativity of the Mother of God.
On this day we celebrate her acceptance of God's will with great joy. Let each of us pray that like her we will understand, accept, and obey God's will at each moment and throughout our lives. For it is God Who created each of us as a unique person and Who loves us more than we can ever know. He knows all our real needs, our deepest and truest aspirations, and everything that is best for us. His will is not to crush our human identity but to bring it to a glorious and creative fulfillment. He will never demand the impossible of us or set us up to fail so that we can be punished. The devil tries to do these things, but not God. It is the enemy who twists obedience into an instrument of torture, and sometimes people do the same. The Lord always helps us when we are in trouble and call out to Him for help. He humbly and patiently looks for ways to save us, teaching us the same lessons over and over when we make mistakes until we learn His ways. We certainly are not expected to obey everybody all the time, but each of us can find things in the Church's life we can take to heart and obey. Every little act of obedience given in love brings us a blessing. When we are faithful in small things, God will reward us greatly. Through the prayers of the Theotokos, may we like her come to worship God, offer ourselves to Him and obey His holy will, so that together with her and all the saints we are restored to the joys of Paradise, joys that begin in this life and are gloriously fulfilled in the life to come, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.