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Sunday Readings for Jan. 16, 2011 (2A)
By Fr. Phil Bloom
Bottom line: If we deny sin, we have no place for Jesus, but if we honestly recognize sin, we open ourselves to Jesus.
A week ago we heard about Jesus' baptism by John. Today John gives a one-sentence summary of who Jesus is: "Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world." Jesus, first and foremost, takes away sin. That is his job description. That is why he came - to remove sin.
That is great news, really the best news. There is, however, one hitch: Before we can come to Jesus, we have to acknowledge our sins. This can be hard. We have a tendency - especially today - to deny sin. It has become almost a reflex response to say things like: "I didn't do it...It wasn't my fault...It wasn't so bad...or...everybody's doing it."
When the first computers came out, some joker made a program where every time something went wrong, a little whiny voice came on that said, "It's not my fault." A lot of people take that approach to sin: "It's not my fault. I was programmed this way. I can't help it..." We want to escape guilt by denying responsibility.
The desire to deny sin goes way back. Do you remember when our father, Adam, ate the forbidden fruit? When God confronted him, what did he do? He blamed the woman. Our mother, Eve, was not much better. She blamed the serpent. The devil made me do it.
A legendary queen named Semiramis came up with a novel way of denying sin. She was living a very immoral life and in order to justify herself, she legalized all forms of perversion. I won't go into details because there are children in our congregation, but Queen Semiramis had the idea that if it was legal, therefore it was OK.
This may sound a familiar. Like Queen Semiramis, many people in our society want to say that certain immoral life styles are the same thing as marriage. I bring it up not to debate the issue, but as an example of how far we human beings will go in order to deny sin.*
We all try to avoid facing sin and guilt - but ultimately it does not work. J. Budziszewski (a philosophy professor at the University of Texas) has written an insightful book titled The Revenge of Conscience. He shows that no matter how much we try to deny sin, conscience has ways of reasserting itself. Denial of sin - even though it is a reflex response - does not work.
If denial of sin doesn't work, what does work? Well, there is a different approach. Instead of the "reflexive response," this approach calls for reflection. There's a big difference between reflex response and reflection. Reflection takes work. It involves a thoughtful, daily examination of one's life - an acceptance of responsibility for the things that I can change.**
Socrates said, "the unexamined life is not worth living." As far as we can tell, a dog does not examine his life. But a human being can. That's what make us unique: We can think things through and make real changes in our lives.
All of us have received certain tendencies from our heredity and environment - but those things do not define us. A person may have an "Irish temper," but does that mean he has to explode at his family? No, you and I can make a choice. We have a responsibility, a stewardship that makes us different from the other creatures on this planet.
In his book, Rediscover Catholicism, Matthew Kelly speaks about the "journey toward the-best-version-of-yourself." The starting point, of course, to acknowledge that the present version has some defects - sins that one need to face. Here is how Matthew Kelly expresses it:
"I am a sinner and I need to be saved. I need to be saved from myself and from my sin. There are many people who love me deeply - parents, siblings, friends, colleagues and neighbors - but they cannot save me. I need a savior. It is the clarity of this realization this is life changing. This is what makes me eligible for membership in the Catholic Church. Jesus didn't come for the healthy; he came for the sick, and he established the Church to continue his work (cf. Mark 2:17)."
If we deny sin, we have no place for Jesus, but if we honestly recognize sin, we open ourselves to Jesus. "Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world." Amen.
*************This is what the Pharisees did. In order to avoid facing their own sins, they invented ways of circumventing God's commandments - and tried to make it appear they were acting piously. E.g., Mark 7:11. As Jesus makes clear, the only people they fooled were themselves.
**I am not talking about scrupulosity. None of us needs a guilt trip. Ironically, a guilt trip can be a way of not facing real sin. The French philosopher, Jean Jacques Rousseau wrote a book called "Confessions" where he revealed embarrassing details about his life. Everyone thought he was being so honest by writing about such intimate things, but we now know that he was covering up his real failure - his abandonment of his own children.* A guilt trip can be a way of not facing one's true failing. (For a salutary exposition of Rousseau’s cover-up, read Intellectuals by Paul Johnson.)