Today in Europe we celebrate the feast of two of our patrons, SS Cyril and Methodius, the holy brothers who brought the Gospel to the Slavic peoples, so our readings are proper. However, I will dedicate this post to the first reading of the day outside Europe which continues the cycle from the Book of Genesis. In that wonderful appropriateness which you find with the liturgy the feast in Europe and the reading from Genesis fit together perfectly. In the feast we celebrate the loving union and ministry of two brothers dedicated to preaching the Gospel, in the reading from Genesis we see another pair of brothers, the strained nature of their relationship, and the introduction of murder into the world.
The story of Cain and Abel is well known and so is the jealousy which creates a barrier between the two brothers. That jealousy is nurtured in the heart of one of them who has strayed from God, and the fruit of this jealousy is the brutal murder of an innocent man. When we read the story we see that, for some reason, God does not accept Cain's sacrifice, while he accepts Abel's. We are not told why Cain's was not accepted, but in his reaction we see a side of him which leads us to guess why. He is a man of the land, and so close to nature you would imagine his heart would have been open to the beauty of creation as are so many who work with the soil. However, it seems the inherited weakness from his parents has led him to see drudgery in the earth. Wondering why God did not accept his offering I turned to Scott Hahn and Curtis Mitch: in their commentary they point out that there is no mention of "first-fruits" in Cain's offering, while Abel, we are told explicitly, sacrificed the firstlings: the author is making a point here. God doe snot accept Cain's offering because he keeps the first fruits, he seems to keep the best for himself and gives God what was left over. Abel, however, thinks first of God and makes the better offering.
Cain was a cursed man long before he killed his brother: he had forgotten God who was only an afterthought, he put himself first, and so it was easy for him to be offended, and when offended he lashed out and destroyed that which revealed his sin: his holy brother. Then, as did his parents before him, he tries to hide his crime from God.
That passage is a good commentary on modern human life. So many of us put God last and ourselves first and when we judge that God is not as receptive to what we want, we lash out and try to murder that which reveals our unreasonableness. Often, as a priest, I see people living immoral lives who, when corrected, strike out at God, the Church and its ministers. I have listened to people who complain about God not hearing their prayers and yet when you dig deeper discover that they rarely acknowledge him, they only what him when they need something: they come first, God second. This is original sin running rampant in our humanity and we are all guilty of it from time to time. As a priest I must struggle with that temptation every day and remind myself of those words uttered by Archbishop Fulton Sheen: "A priest is not his own" - living that is hard.
Yet, today's feast provides the antidote: two brothers who lived in unity, not only with each other, but with God, and put him first in their lives; and the fruit of that selfless dedication to the Lord is the lively faith of generations of men and women, saints and martyrs, cultures and wisdom, peace and love.
Abel did not die in vain - this first martyr shed his blood in testament to the call to give ourselves completely to God. His sacrifice - that of the firstlings and his own death, foreshadows Christ's own sacrifice, of our Saviour's act of complete surrender to the Father. As you continue to read Genesis we see that Cain goes on to produce a line of people who alienate themselves from God and who bring the world God created to the brink of destruction. In the midst of that the blood of the murdered one calls out for renewal and redemption: that call is answered by the Blood of Jesus Christ.