Homilies on the Kerygma,
St Mary’s Cathedral, 1st Sunday of Lent, 21 February 2021.
Today, Jesus goes into the desert and meets Satan, enters into combat with Satan and defeats him. He meets the mystery of evil face to face. Today’s homily is the second of the series of 5 on the kerygma, and fittingly we face today the dark mystery of sin, our sin. May Christ strengthen us! He was innocent, says St Peter, but “died for our sins to lead us to God”. He was innocent but took on the filth and washed it away in his blood. Risen, he brings us forgiveness. The Christian message is that God’s mercy, God’s love, is greater than sin – but we have to face it, acknowledge it.
First, though, it’s good to be clear: sin is not an absolute. We often hear of “Catholic guilt”. We often hear that Christians are obsessed with sin (and sex) and that if you want to be a happy carefree person the thing to do is jettison all this nonsense. But in the Catholic view, sin is not the first thing, nor the last thing. The Bible’s first two chapters are a song of praise for the goodness of existence, of the universe, the planet, and Nature, of life, of woman and man, and family and work. “God saw that it was good.” Sin only rears its head in ch. 3. If we hear of young friends who’ve just had a baby, we don’t put our heads in our hands and say, “Oh no! Another sinner in the world.” We don’t send them a text saying, “I’m so, so sorry to hear your news.” No, we rejoice at new life. The goodness of being and life come first. And when sin does come into the world, it comes as something secondary. A snake slips into the garden, wraps itself like ivy round the tree. Sin’s like novichok stirred into the tea. It disfigures, denatures, deconstructs, stains, spoils, contaminates, poisons something originally good. Certainly, certainly it’s not a small thing. If you know your Lord of the Rings, think of Sauron and Saruman or the Dark Riders or Wormtongue or the Orcs or even poor Gollum. Or go to Lady Macbeth, or Regan and Goneril in King Lear, or Richard III, or nearer to home Lord Voldemort. Pass from literature to reality, think of concentration camps or child abuse or the erasure of so much life in the womb, or what goes on in the underworld even of a city like ours. Or consider the dishonesty and greed, the pride and the vanity, the selfishness and indifference that permeate so much of our ordinary life and daily world. They’re there in academia, in business, in politics, in the Church, in sport, and plain old family life. These are the epiphanies of sin. It’s the virus that won’t go away. Christian tradition speaks of original sin and actual sin and social sin, of sin against God, against neighbour, against self, of mortal sin and venial sin and seven deadly sins, and of death as “the wages of sin”. Put like that, it sounds overdone, it seems to add credence to the thesis Christians are obsessed with the subject, but it’s not talking about nothing. It’s not just words – would that it was! St Paul speaks of sin as a person, as a force. We haven’t just sinned; we’ve fallen into the power of sin. And we feel so powerless against it, collectively and individually. However, however, however… it doesn’t come either first or last. “It was when he had shown me sin that the Lord said to me, “All shall be well””: so Julian of Norwich. Sin is a secondary thing. There’s a Lamb who takes it away. “There lives the dearest freshness deep down things” (G.M. Hopkins). There’s resilience, repentance, recovery, redemption, rescue, resurrection.
What is it, though? What is sin? We need to face it, acknowledge. We’re fooling ourselves, says St John, if we say we have no sin (cf. 1 John 1:8).
It can be described many ways. Sin is breaking the law of God. It’s “an utterance, a deed, or a desire against the eternal law of God” (St Augustine). It’s breaking the commandments. “Lawlessness”, says St John (1 Jn 3:4) – “law” here meaning God’s plan for our good and happiness. It’s disobedience. It’s refusing to listen, hardening the heart. It’s an insult to God. It’s infidelity, contempt for the covenant, ingratitude. It doesn’t happen in a void; it presupposes relationship and damages it. It’s abuse of the gifts of creation, be it of ourselves or of others or nature. It’s idolatry, preferring the created to the Creator. It’s smash and grab. It’s an abuse of our own freedom. These are ideas and phrases – trying to name the dark.
The Bible adds its stories too: the eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the first great break; jealous brother killing brother in the field; the corporate hubris of the Tower of Babel; the gang-raping abuse of hospitality in Sodom and Gomorrah; the worship of the Golden Calf, false gods; King David’s adultery and murder. These are all stories that can repeat themselves, that can re-write themselves in our own lives. They function as mirrors. I see myself.
But it’s in the Gospels, on the Cross, that sin is unmasked. 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” (Hans Urs von Balthasar). We feel this on Good Friday. In the persons of the disciples, Christians failed. In the person of their leaders and the manipulated crowd, the Chosen People failed. In the person of Pilate and his soldiers, the pagans failed. In Judas, friendship fails. In the Jewish leadership, religion fails. In the Roman authorities, law and justice fail. We weren’t actually there, but the Cross looks at us all. Here we are facing the truth, “the judgment of the world”, as St Leo says. Christ crucified is 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” (CCC 1851). And I am revealed, my sin is revealed. “Pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.” And here’s the terrible thing. I’ve been lousy to Christ. He is my God and my neighbour. He even carries all creation in himself. If I’m wantonly cruel to an animal, it refers to Christ. Every sin wounds his love. This is where it becomes unbearable.
Here on the Cross two contraries converge: the deepest dark of the un-truth, ugliness and un-love of sin and the brightest light of divine truth, beauty, goodness.
Last week I spoke of God’s love for each of us. We could speak of God’s love for the world as well. It is all one in the end. And sins, any sin, my little daily sins, the great political-social sins, the first sin, the last sin and everything in-between, however we name or describe them, whichever commandment they break, whatever value they insult, come down to one thing. They come down to the refusal to see and accept, to say “yes” or “please” or “thank you”, to a great love. “God is love” and love flows from him. It erupts, it shines in ourselves, our own existence and life and well-being, in the goodness and beauty of things, in the love others show us, even under what seems opposite, and most of all in the love made visible in Christ. To sin is to stand under a torrent of love and turn the little cup of myself upside down. It’s not to see, not to welcome. It is a “no” to this love, the ultimate self-harm. The Good News is that the Wounded One on the Cross can turn the cup round, the right way up. We can say “sorry”. We can head home. Christ, we can say, exposes our sin, but our sin exposes him. It reveals the depth of his love.
Next week we can turn to the mystery of Christ.