I’m most grateful to Bishop John for the opportunity to contribute to his programme of catechesis. I am here with a sense of privilege and with a full heart.
My remit is to talk about the Christian understanding of sin and how the acknowledgement of sin opens us to the mercy of God. The Bible will be the best guide here.
I Sin in Context
The first thing is to put sin in its place, in context. We shouldn’t take it out of context, separate, absolutise it, obsess about it. My talk, after all, is only one of a series. Sin is a feature in the human landscape, and an element in the relationship between God and man. It’s real and large, but it isn’t all there is. It belongs to a greater whole. It’s not the whole story.
- My father once came to visit me in the monastery. As he was leaving, he said to me: ‘You know we [he and my mother] love you very much.’ I’m sure I knew that already. They had proved it often enough with great patience! But this time it hit home. And my first reaction was to want to find a hole and disappear in it. I realised how little I had recognised, acknowledged, and repaid that love. I could say that I saw my sin.
Don’t we feel a shock of guilt if we discover that someone we thought selfish turns out to be secretly very generous, or when someone whom we think thinks badly of us turns out to think well of us?
In these instances, the sense of guilt arises from an experience of goodness and love. It’s like a computer. There must be an illuminated screen. Only then can we see the words we write.
- A holy lady I had the privilege of knowing in Elgin told me of a near-death experience she once had in a dentist’s chair. She found herself before the Lord – and then back in the chair! But the words she used to describe that encounter: “If only I had known”, i.e. been aware of his love. And that lady would always be at the back of the church during Mass, and often in tears. She had a deep sense of her sinfulness, but it came from this sense of Christ’s love.
This helps to put sin in context.
First, the word ‘sin’ belongs to the vocabulary of the faith. ‘To try to understand what sin is, one must first recognize the profound relation of man to God, for only in this relationship is the evil of sin unmasked in its true identity as humanity’s rejection of God and opposition to him’ (CCC 386).
A sense of accountability and a sense of right and wrong are part of the DNA of every human being. But it is only as God progressively reveals himself that the full bearing of this ‘doing wrong’ is unmasked. Only as the sunlight fills the room do we see the dust in it. Only as it shines through the window, do we see the need to clean the window. Only if we are married can we commit adultery. This is why, at the individual level, it’s the saints who have the acutest sense of their own sinfulness, and at the corporate level why the deepest insight into sin is found within Christianity, in the light of the passion of Christ.
“Man has been made aware, in a rather vivid and precise manner, of sin as an offence against God only in Judaism and Christianity, in the light of positive revelation” (Joseph Huby).
A second thought is this: sin is not a primary reality, but a secondary one. That human beings are sinners / sinful is not the first fact about them. When we look at a newborn baby, our first thought isn’t, ‘Here’s another sinner’, but rather, ‘Here’s the wonder of a new life.’ My talk is the third in the series: the first was on God, who is good, and on creation, which is good. (This means, incidentally, that sin is un-natural. Killing, committing adultery, stealing, bearing false witness are not natural, however statistically prevalent. ‘Sin contradicts our nature’, says Julian of Norwich). And the next talks I imagine will be on Christ the Saviour, the Church, the Holy Spirit and the Mary, i.e. on the work of redemption. So sin is, yes, a chapter in the book, no more, no less. And the book is about divine love. Sin is wholly enclosed within that.
And most of all, it is enclosed within the forgiveness of sins. And this is the heart of the Gospel. ‘The Gospel is the revelation in Jesus Christ of God’s mercy to sinners’ (CCC 1846). ‘The blood of Jesus, his Son, cleanses us from all sin’ (1 Jn 1:7).
The word ‘Gospel’ means specifically the good news of a victory over an enemy. The Christian Gospel is the good news of the victory of God through Christ over the two great enemies of man, sin and death.
Christianity is the revelation of God’s deepest truth and love. That unmasks our un-truth and un-love, but only unmasks it to overcome it. This happens in the paschal Mystery. And Mary is the fullest fruit of the paschal Mystery. When we see a picture of Mary Immaculate with her heel crushing the head of the serpent, we see the Gospel. We’re seeing sin in context.
Hence this from Julian of Norwich: ‘It was when God showed me sin, that he said “All shall be well”’ (Revelations of Divine Love, LT, ch. 34).
One accusation against Christianity is of being obsessed with sin, especially sexual sin; that it frowns on enjoying oneself; that it encourages guilt (‘Catholic guilt’). Certainly Christianity can play the dark cards to excess and we can get our priorities wrong, misread the Gospel. But essentially the accusation is untrue.
I’d rather say that Christianity gets the human condition right. It has a deep sense of all that’s wrong, amiss, evil in the world, and takes it to its ultimate root which is sin and estrangement from God. Christianity takes evil seriously and is aware of the human tragedy. At the same time though, it hopes and believes that this can be overcome and already radically is. The chicken may still be running around, the poisonous snake may still be writhing, but the head has been cut off. And Dante wrote ‘the divine comedy’. We know that evil and sin and death don’t have the last word, but grace and mercy do. We know that the Resurrection followed the Passion. We are more serious and joyful at once. We can even laugh at sin. We can take it light-heartedly. So the mystics consider sin as one drop of dirty water swallowed up in an ocean of love.
II Looking at sin
“By sight of sin we should grow mad”, said George Herbert. But holding Christ’s hand, let us try and look at it. Let’s “do sin”.
I want to look at sin in a generalised way, but it is worth recalling first that there are many distinctions to be made. This is part of the catechetical tradition of the Church.
First of all, there are many different kinds of sin: sins against the different commandments, sins against self, neighbour and God etc. This is why we have examinations of conscience. Very helpful is the old monastic wisdom of the 8 ‘thoughts’ or passions which work away inside us: gluttony, lust, avarice, anger, sadness, acedia, vanity and pride. ‘For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come’ (Mk 7:21).
Then, we have distinctions between original sin and actual sin, between vices and sins, between mortal and venial sin, between sin and the tendency to sin (“concupiscence”), between sin and sinfulness. There is also the concept of social sin. There’s the distinction between the objective sinfulness of a certain action and the subjective guilt of the person performing it, which may be modified by many factors.
All of this is very important when it comes to acknowledging our sins.
But I think that when we say, Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death, we are being holistic in our approach. We call ourselves sinners because we were conceived in original sin and even though that has been taken away by baptism, the tendency to sin remains in us; the roots and inclinations are there. We call ourselves sinners because we have actually sinned. We call ourselves sinners because we all share, in some way, in the “sin of the world” which the Lamb of God alone can take away. We call ourselves sinners because we suffer the consequences of sin.
So let’s look now at sin in general.
First, seven definitions or descriptions or images for sin.
- i) There is sin as transgression: ‘an utterance, a deed, or a desire against the eternal law of God’ (St Augustine). Sin is breaking the commandments. ‘Sin is lawlessness’, says St John (1 Jn 3:4). ‘Law’ must not be understood here as an arbitrary rule, but as authoritative guidance for how to live in a way that brings the human being to real happiness. This guidance may come through right reason and right conscience. I know I should not steal this money, but I do. Or it may come through a revealed law of God. I know I should forgive my enemy, but I refuse to do so. And that is sin.
- ii) Sin is disobedience, not simply in the sense of breaking a law, but in the sense of failing to listen – to the word of God. This is the meaning of the phrases ‘hardness of heart’ and ‘stiff-necked’. Because the word of God is truth, to turn the ear of the heart from it exposes us to a lie (Rom 1:25).
iii) Sin is disloyalty, infidelity, a violation of the covenant. God enters into a committed relationship – a covenant – with man and man with him, preferring other relationships. And then we turn away from that. This is spiritual adultery.
- iv) Sin is an offence against God. ‘Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight’ (Ps 50). It is a rejection of his love, a slap in the face, a personal insult; rebellion. Think of the prodigal son: when he claimed his part of the inheritance, he was wishing his father dead.
- v) Sin is pride, arrogance, hubris, self-exaltation, self-glorification, a claim to divinity. It is playing god. This is the sin that built the Tower of Babel, the sin of the great cities and empires, the sin of Lucifer. ‘You have said, “I am a god, I sit in the seat of the gods, in the heart of the seas”’ (Tyre, Ezek 28:2).It can be personal too: ‘the love of oneself even to the contempt of God’.
- vi) Sin is preferring the creature to the Creator (cf. Rom 1:25). The worship of idols is a symbol of this, but of course we can worship other things than images of gods: we can idolise people, a nation, a culture, money, pleasure, power, even ideas. These things become gods in our hearts and we become their servants.
vii) Sin ‘is an abuse of the freedom that God gives to created persons so that they are capable of loving him and loving one another’ (CCC 387).
‘Which of you can convict me of sin?’ (Jn 8:46). Christ, by his obedience and humility and love of the Father, is the antithesis of all this.
One component of that gift of the Holy Spirit called ‘fear of the Lord’ is a ‘horror of sin’. May that be alive in us!
But sin has consequences. Let me mention four of these.
- i) Death: ‘through one man sin entered the world and through sin death’ (Rom 5:12). Death here must be understood metaphorically as well as literally. It means falling apart, disintegrating, being shattered, spiralling downwards into non-being. It means an outbreak of disorder in ourselves, a return to chaos. This is true not just individually, but socially, globally. ‘Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold. / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world’ (W. B. Yeats). Sin separates us from that ‘profound relation’ of ourselves to God, from the source of life. It’s an unwanted cutting of the umbilical cord. It’s disconnection. Therefore death is always at its heels. ‘I have seen the wicked triumphant, / towering like a cedar of Lebanon. / I passed by again; he was gone. / I searched; he was nowhere to be found’ (Ps 36: 35-36).
- ii) Being at enmity with God and under his ‘wrath’. ‘I shall be hidden from your face’, says Cain after murdering Abel (Gen 4:14). Sin brings alienation, estrangement, exile from God, and in the case of final unrepented mortal sin, it will take us to the eternal loss of God, i.e. hell. Even now, humanity, considered as unredeemed, apart from Christ, is truly ‘under a cloud’. We are ‘children of wrath’ (Eph 2:3). ‘All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’ (Rom 3:23). We are an exiled people, exiled from the radiant face of God, living outside the ‘land’ of his presence, in what St Augustine calls ‘the region of unlikeness’. ‘By the rivers of Babylon / there we sat and wept, / remembering Sion; / on the poplars that grew there / we hung up our harps’ (Ps 136:2).
iii) Falling under the power of sin. ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin’ (Jn 8:34). ‘Sin is couching at the door’, the Lord says to Cain when anger fills him (Gen 4:7), and ‘its desire is for you’. St Paul personifies sin. It is a force that has entered the world with Adam’s transgression, has spread through the human race and affects even the material world. It dwells within us and is at work in our fallen human nature and our body too. By sinning, we are seduced by and enslaved to this power. We are wounded and weakened, disabled, by it. We lose our freedom and our clarity of vision. Like the drug-taker or alcoholic we are caught in a vortex or a whirlpool. We actually lose ourselves. That is why the prodigal son has first to ‘return to himself’ (Lk 15:17). And behind this power of sin lurks the demonic, the Satanic. Sin exposes us to them as well, ‘the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places’ (Eph 6:12). ‘The whole world is in the power of the evil one’ (1 Jn 5:19).
- iv) A focus upon self and an inner emptiness, an experience of the void, a craving for excitement ending in dissatisfaction. Modern literature and art have explored this ad nauseam. But the book of Ecclesiastes was there first: ‘Vanity, of vanities, all is vanity.’ The word literally means a puff of air, a vapour, mere breath. More abstractly, it suggests nothingness, emptiness, uselessness, futility, impermanence. ‘Vanity they pursued, vanity they became’, says Jeremiah of idol-worshippers. Sin brings us misery. It especially brings loneliness. We lose the capacity for relationships, for the other. We find ourselves isolated and alone, our hearts fixed in ice, incapable of love.
Let me say here that Jesus himself who was without sin of any kind experienced all these consequences of sin – redemptively, for us. He took upon himself, into himself, to the limit of abandonment, the whole pathos and suffering of the human condition, and thereby transformed it.
Literature and history are full of them: Macbeth, King Lear’s daughters, Mr Kurtz in Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness, Fagin in Oliver Twist, the Dementors in Harry Potter, Sauron and Saruman in Lord of the Rings.
But the Bible is strong here too, and divinely inspired. It has stories of sin which are not limited to the first protagonists. They can be mirrors in which we see ourselves: ‘You are the man!’ (2 Samuel 12:7).
The first sin, the original sin (Gen 3)
The murder of Abel by Cain (Gen 4)
The tower of Babel (Gen 11)
The golden calf (Ex 32)
The sin of David (2 Sam 11)
The crucifixion of Jesus (4 Gospels)
The ‘man of sin’, the Antichrist, understood as a final epiphany of sin in history (2 Thess 2).
To dwell a little on the Passion of Christ. It is ‘the central sin of world history’ (H. Urs von Balthasar). Its depiction in the Gospels ‘is designed as the unveiling of the whole sin of mankind. Thus it starts with the Christian traitor, is continued by the Jews and is brought to a conclusion by the Gentiles’ (idem). In the persons of the disciples, Christians failed. In the person of their leaders and the manipulated crowd, the Jews failed. In the person of Pilate and his soldiers, the pagans failed. We are all involved. We are all responsible. This becomes very vivid in the reading of the Passion on Good Friday, when we join in the cries of ‘Crucify him!’.
In the Gospel of John, sin as a whole is crystallised in one sin: the refusal to believe that Jesus Christ has been sent by the Father to bring us eternal life (cf. Jn 16:9). We can turn that round, and say that all sin, each and every sin, including any sin against our neighbour or against our own body, is a sin against Christ. It is a negative participation in the passion of Christ. It is adding our drop of sour wine in the chalice handed him at Gethsemane. ‘I was hungry and you did not give me anything to eat’ (Mt 25:42), Jesus will say at the Last Judgment.
The crucifixion of Jesus is the ultimate offence of humanity against God. It’s the anti-sacrament of sin. It’s the outward sign of our inward dis-grace. ‘It is precisely in the Passion, when the mercy of Christ is about to vanquish it, that sin most clearly manifests its violence and its many forms…However, at the very hour of darkness, the hour of the prince of this world, the sacrifice of Christ secretly becomes the source from which the forgiveness of sins will pour forth inexhaustibly’ (CCC 1851).
On the Cross, ‘Jesus takes upon himself the entire sin of the world. Having been “made sin”, he “confesses” it on the Cross in a confession that is – for the first time – total. In return at Easter, he is given an “absolution” that embraces the whole world. In view of all this, the post-Easter preaching sees even the deepest guilt in the light of the reconciliation that has been achieved…Paul, the theologian of salvation history, depicts the world’s sin in the darkest hue, but this depiction is only side of the diptych; the other side is always of greater moment; where sin abounds, “grace much more abounds” (Rom 5:15, 17, 20)’ (H. U. von Balthasar).
We remember what the Lord said to Dame Julian of Norwich: ‘Sin was needful, but all shall be well, all shall be well, all manner of thing shall be well’ (LT 27).
III Acknowledging Sin
‘If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness’ (1 Jn 1:8-9).
Von Balthasar has given us this moving picture of Christ on the Cross making, as it were, a great confession of our sins. He took our sins on, he drank the poisoned chalice of our sour wine, he was “made sin” (2 Cor 5:21); he experienced all the consequences of sin. And in the Resurrection he received absolution on the part of us all. And therefore sent the apostles out to preach repentance and the forgiveness of sins in his name to all the nations (Lk 24:47).
St John says, ‘If we confess our sins…’. St James says, ‘Confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed’ (Jas 5:16). So Christians are people who do acknowledge / confess their sins. And when we do, we are uniting ourselves positively to Christ on the Cross. We are calling down the absolution of the Father of mercies. And because we are members of Christ, we are not doing this as isolated individuals. We are doing it with and for others. And with and for the whole world. We are opening the world to new hope. This is part of our Christian mission.
We have been given the grace of acknowledging sin, i.e. of acknowledging mercy and grace. We do this in the Holy Spirit. This is pleasing to the Father.
How do we do it?
By many ways.
We do it simply by being conscious of sin. We shouldn’t be obsessed by it or too blasé about it. This is a consciousness which should give us pain. It should be a loving of Christ crucified, like Mary’s. ‘Love him most of all outside yourself, in your brothers and sisters, in all your brothers and sisters. If you could have any preference among them, love him in the greatest sinners, in the most wretched, the most ragged, the most repugnant, the most forsaken, the rejects of society, in those most tortured by life’ (Chiara Lubich).
We do it by receiving the sacraments of initiation (baptism, confirmation and the holy eucharist), by which the Father ‘has delivered us from the dominion of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of our sins’ (Col 1:13-14).
We do it every time we receive the blood of Christ, ‘poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins’.
We do it every time we say the ‘I confess’ and ‘Lord have mercy’ at Mass.
We do it when we pray the Psalms which are full of a sense of sin, and supremely when we pray Ps 50 / 51, the Miserere – one of the most wonderful prayers there is.
We do it when we feel the sufferings of others and when we accept the consequences of sin in ourselves.
We do it most eloquently when we go to confession. ‘In fact, the moment you recognise yourself as a sinner, and delight…in being similar to him made sin, you fill the emptiness left by sin’ (Chiara Lubich).
In the Sacrament of Reconciliation, we anticipate the Last Judgment, or the particular judgement that will come to each of us ‘at the hour of our death’. I suspect that will not take the form of an examination of our lives, but the revelation of the extent of Christ’s love, and in the light of that, of how we have responded, or not, to that love.
Jesus on the Cross experienced the consequences of sin more than anyone else. So he can ‘fill every void, illuminate every darkness, accompany every solitude, annul every suffering, cancel every sin’ (Chiara Lubich).
When we acknowledge sin, we affirm that. And if that is not to bring hope into the world, what is?
+ Hugh Gilbert OSB
Bishop of Aberdeen
Talk in St Mirin’s Cathedral, Paisley, 8 March 2015