Friday, April 23, 2010

On the Subject of Sin and Penance

Vrancke van der Stockt 1420 -1495
The Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise from The Redemption Triptych/
Adán y Eva expulsados del Paraíso from Tríptico de la Redención c.1470
Oil on panel 195 cm x 77 cm
Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid

In Chapter 28 of THE ESSENTIAL POPE BENEDICT XVI: His Central Writings and Speeches. (2007) by John F. Thornton and Susan B. Varenne, there is reproduced part of one of the then Cardinal Ratzinger`s homilies. It was in the early 1980s.

He discussed the topic of "Sin".

"After the end of the bishops’ synod that was devoted to the subject of the family, we were discussing in a small group possible themes for the next synod, and Jesus’s words at the beginning of Mark’s Gospel came to mind.

These words summarize Jesus’s whole message: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel” (Mk 1:15).

One of the bishops reflected on these words and said he had the impression that we had long ago actually halved Jesus’s message as it is thus summarized.

We speak a great deal— and like to speak— about evangelization and the Good News, in such a way as to make Christianity attractive to people. But hardly anyone, according to this bishop, dares nowadays to proclaim the prophetic message: Repent! Hardly anyone dares to make to our age this elementary evangelical appeal, with which the Lord wants to induce us to acknowledge our sinfulness, do penance, and become other than what we are.

Our confrere added that Christian preaching today sounded to him like the recording of a symphony that was missing the initial bars of music, so that the whole symphony was incomplete and its development incomprehensible. With this he touched a weak point of our present-day spiritual situation.

Sin has become, almost everywhere today, one of those subjects that are not spoken about.

Religious education of whatever kind does its best to evade it. Theater and films use the word ironically or in order to entertain. Sociology and psychology attempt to unmask it as an illusion or a complex. Even the law is trying to get by more and more without the concept of guilt. It prefers to make use of sociological language, which turns the concept of good and evil into statistics, and in its place distinguishes between normative and nonnormative behavior.

Implicit here is the possibility that the statistical proportions will themselves change; what is presently nonnormative could one day become the rule; indeed, perhaps one should even strive to make the nonnormative normal. In such an atmosphere of quantification, the whole idea of the moral has been generally abandoned.

This is a logical development if there is no standard for human beings to use as a model—something not discovered by us but coming from the inner goodness of Creation.

With this we have arrived at the real heart of the matter. People today know of no standard; to be sure, they do not want to know of any because they see standards as threats to their freedom. Here one is made to think of some words of the French Jew Simone Weil, who said that “we experience good only by doing it. . . When we do evil we do not know it, because evil flies from the light."

People recognize the good only when they themselves do it. They recognize the evil only when they do not do it.

Thus sin has become a suppressed subject, but everywhere we can see that although it is suppressed, it has nonetheless remained real. What is remarkable to me is the aggressiveness, always on the verge of pouncing, that we experience openly in our society—the lurking readiness to demean the other person, to hold others guilty whenever misfortune occurs to them, to accuse society, and to want to change the world by violence.

It seems to me that all of this can be understood only as an expression of the suppressed reality of guilt, which people do not want to admit. But since it is still there, they have to attack it and destroy it. As long as the situation remains thus—that is, as long as people suppress the truth but do not succeed in doing away with it, and as long as they are suffering from this suppressed truth—it will be one of the tasks of the Holy Spirit to “convince the world of sin” (Jn 16:8).

It is not a question here of making people’s lives unpleasant and of fettering them with restrictions and negations, but rather simply of leading them to the truth and thus healing them. Human beings can be healthy only when they are true and when they stop suppressing and destroying the truth.

The third chapter of the Book of Genesis, on which this meditation is based, is of a piece with this task of the Holy Spirit, which he pursues throughout history. He convinces the world and us of sin—not to humiliate us, but to make us true and healthy, to “save” us."

Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475–1564)
The Forbidden Fruit 1509
Sistine Chapel, The Vatican

It was a theme which the Pope returned to recently.

It was in the homily given by the Pope early in the morning of Thursday, April 15, 2010, during a Mass in the Pauline Chapel with the members of the Pontifical Biblical Commission. News of it was first announced by Vatican Radio, seven hours afterward. And the complete text was released 52 hours later.

Here is an extract:

"Let's look at another verse: Christ, the Savior, has given Israel conversion and forgiveness of sins (Acts v. 31) - in the Greek text the term is metanoia - he has given penance and forgiveness of sins.

This for me is a very important observation: penance is a grace.

There is a tendency in exegesis that says: Jesus in Galilee had announced a grace without condition, absolutely unconditional, therefore also without penance, grace as such, without human preconditions.

But this is a false interpretation of grace.

Penance is grace; it is a grace that we recognize our sin, it is a grace that we know we need renewal, change, a transformation of our being.

Penance, being able to do penance, is the gift of grace. And I must say that we Christians, even in recent times, have often avoided the word penance, it has seemed too harsh to us.

Now, under the attacks of the world that speak to us of our sins, we see that being able to do penance is grace. And we see that it is necessary to do penance, that is, to recognize what is wrong in our life, open ourselves to forgiveness, prepare ourselves for forgiveness, allow ourselves to be transformed.

The suffering of penance, of purification, of transformation, this suffering is grace, because it is renewal, it is the work of divine mercy.

And so these two things that Saint Peter says - penance and forgiveness - correspond to the beginning of the preaching of Jesus: metanoeite, which means be converted (cf. Mk. 1:15).

So this is the fundamental point: metanoia is not a private thing, which would seem to be replaced by grace, but metanoia is the arrival of the grace that transforms us."