Wednesday of the First Week of Lent
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By Benedict Augustine
“Have mercy on me, O God, in your goodness;
in the greatness of your compassion wipe out my offense.
Thoroughly wash me from my guilt
and of my sin cleanse me.”
Before people stop believing in God, they usually stop believing in sin. They confuse the issue of right and wrong, make it all subjective or relative, and soon stop believing in morality altogether. In its early days, the Church had to address this tendency that arose with the Pelagianist heresy, which denied the existence of Original Sin. Many doctors, including St. Augustine, quickly saw that this belief would have a dangerous domino effect: a denial of original sin would do away with the need for the sacrament of Confession or any of the other sacraments uniting men to Jesus, which would then make redundant the intercession of the Church, which would finally question the need for faith in God.
After so many tracts and writings, the Catholic successfully refuted this heresy, recognizing the important truth that all men and women need Jesus’ saving power to live truly moral lives. No matter which rung of the social ladder one occupies, no matter which era he lives in, he cannot effect his own redemption. Even if, like many deists during the Enlightenment, people acknowledge the wisdom of Christ the Teacher (as opposed to Christ the Savior) and try to live out these teachings in a practical manner, they will do nothing to improve their souls. In fact, taking Christ’s teachings without having faith, hope, or love would only make a person proud and further separated from God.
Since the Reformation in the 16th century, and the religious wars that followed, the concepts of sin and redemption have suffered from increasing confusion. Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli affirmed that one need only have faith to be saved; the Church’s sacraments had not power or meaning, so the believer did not really need them, except baptism since Jesus explicitly tells His disciples to baptize and even undergoes baptism Himself. This change in theology immediately transformed the church from a sacramental body through which Christ entered people’s lives into a teaching institution that instructed members in faith and morals—simply put,the church would only “instruct and console.”
What followed from this fundamental change merely validated the fears of the Early Church Fathers: sin and repentance became personal concerns, which then rendered both entirely relative and subjective, which finally took away its reality. The current situation of Christianity, especially modernized Christianity, reflects this last stage. Many Christians deny Hell, justify most sinful behaviors, and think their benign regard for Christ and themselves will surely land them in heaven. In other words, one can hardly distinguish a Christian from an atheist or adeist; they function and act identically with only a few modifications in reasoning. Barack Obamaillustrated this perfectly when he responded to the question on what he thought qualified as sin, responding, “Being out of alignment with my values.”
Therefore, Christians must return to recognizing sin as a reality, not as something out of alignment with personal preferences. Otherwise, Christ would have come for nothing and His divinity would mean nothing. More than His power over nature, which He demonstrates in His miracles, Jesus has the power to forgive sins. Besides healing the body, which even humans can often accomplish on their own, He can heal the soul, which humans cannot do at all.
When discussing signs and miracles, Jesus does not compare Himself to the famous prophet Elijah who performed so many, but to Jonah, the reluctant prophet whose claim to fame was being swallowed by a whale. Jesus tells the crowd, “Just as Jonah became a sign to the Ninevites, so will the Son of Man be to this generation,” explaining His missions precisely as one of repentance and forgiveness. Jonah warned the Ninevites of God’s impending wrath, causing them to repent and fast; God, in turn, repents of His former decision and forgives them.
Jesus has come to do the same as Jonah, not only for one city, but for the whole world. He has come to offer God’s forgiveness. However, forgiveness only works for people who repent. If one forgives an unrepentant sinner, he only enables and affirmsinstead of corrects and heals. Jesus may share the company of sinners, yet He does not simply tolerate their behavior, but instead corrects it. Jesus has His greatest difficulty in converting people who do not see their behavior as sinful. They saw no need for a savior and even felt insulted by the idea. Aware of this insanity, this direct offspring of Original Sin, having taken root in His audience, Jesus simply warns them that they are making a colossal mistake,and all those who have repented in past willeventually condemn them for their pride and stupidity.
Today, the sacraments, particularly that of Penance (spoken of today as “Reconciliation”), work as the sign that Jesus speaks about. The Christian regularlyprofesses his need for Jesus’ forgiveness, healing, and ongoing assistance. He recognizes that only Jesus can forgive, and that, contrary to popular morals, the individual cannot forgive himself and live free of guilt. The season of Lent offers a chance for the Christians to imitate the Ninevites to repent and fast in order to recognize the plague of sin and the consequent need for Jesus. In this way, they can recognize that the spiritual virtues truly take place in soul, not in the body.