Last summer I climbed to the top of Cologne Cathedral and was rewarded with a stunning view of the city. This urge to climb seems to have been present in human beings for thousands of years, and the experience of looking down at the earth from a great height is one which takes us beyond the physical. We can be struck by the wonder of creation in the smallest and closest things, but there is something awe-inspiring in looking out to the horizon and seeing the world down below.
In common with all experiences that take us beyond the ordinary limits of our lives, the experience of looking down from a great height can bring into focus questions about ourselves and how we relate to the world around us. What am I in this vast world? How small I seem in comparison to the great expanse below and the vastness of the universe above. Is my life here just a chance event or is there something beyond all change and decay; something which I can hope in despite all that might befall me in life?
In the Gospel today St Matthew tells us how Jesus is set by Satan on a very high mountain and offered the kingdoms of the world in return for worshipping him. The picture is a vivid one, and it powerfully engages our imagination. From the great height Jesus is tempted with the question which is put to each of us, if you could hold the world in your hand what would you do?
On the mountain we can open our lives to that which is beyond us, or we can close our grasp on that which lies beneath. Not all of us are great rulers, surveying the extent of our kingdom, but each of us has been entrusted with some share in God's creation. The temptation is this: through pride, greed or fear to hold fast to that portion of the good things of this world we have been given. It is this temptation which Adam and Eve succumb to in the garden. They grasp for the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden, but rather than rising to be like the gods they fall, and lose their innocence.
In the second reading, which is from the letter of St Paul to the Romans, we are told that 'as one man's fall brought condemnation on everyone, so the good act of one man brings everyone life.' Here St Paul is referring to the cross; it is the crucifixion of Jesus Christ which brings life, where the grasping of Adam had brought death. We are brought to another tree, one set on a hill, from which Jesus looks down upon the world. Jesus has rejected the temptations of Satan and now he completes his victory over Satan. Whereas Adam and Eve grasp at the apple, Jesus opens his arms in his great prayer of thanksgiving to the Father.
On the cross Jesus unites himself to each one of us as we are faced with the choice between life and death: do I grasp hold of the world beneath me, asserting my power and control over it, or do I return it in love to the one who has given it in love? On the cross Jesus Christ utters his great 'yes' to the father, to the gift of creation, a 'yes' that he makes on behalf of each one of us, and he invites us to share in this prayer of thanksgiving - to live our lives in the hope of the resurrection, not the despair of our own desires.