To call sin, sin - First Sunday of Lent (A)

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“Sin entered the world through one man, and through sin death and thus death has spread through the whole human race because everyone has sinned”. Words we are familiar with and taken from the second reading this morning. St Paul is blunt and presents a grim picture of the human condition. His explanation of the human condition is grounded in the account of the fall of Adam and Eve, presented in the first reading this morning. Sin has entered the world, because mankind has chosen to sin.

The fact is that St Paul takes sin very seriously, he does not make light of it. For him, sin is the principal cause of man's unhappiness and is the principal cause of the social evils that afflict humanity.

In an age that wants to affirm the positive, such a harsh assessment of the lot of humanity is not very palatable. In an age that relativises truth so that there is no objective truth any more, the idea of responsibility for evil is hard to accept. Humanity is losing a sense of a moral code on which to judge its conduct.

Let us give a name to the reality of sin so that it will not remain some sort of abstraction. Let us call sin, sin. Let us say that pride, rejection of God, lust, hypocrisy, injustice, violence, untruth, and hatred are sins. Let us say that humanity is blighted by sin and the various forms of social breakdown are the result of sin. Our world is burdened by the reality of sin, but humanity is so reluctant to acknowledge this truth.

The Catholic Catechism says, “Sin is present in human history; any attempt to ignore it or to give this dark reality other names would be futile”. (CCC 386) The Catechism adds, “Without the knowledge Revelation gives of God we cannot recognize sin clearly and are tempted to explain it as merely a developmental flaw, a psychological weakness, a mistake, or the necessary consequence of an inadequate social structure, etc. Only in the knowledge of God's plan for man can we grasp that 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)

Sin can be understood only when we grasp God’s plan for human life. Sin is human wilfulness in denying God and disobeying his direction for living human life. This was the sin of Adam and Eve and lies at the heart of all sin. Every sin, in the end, is a rejection of God.

Yet we readily dress up sin with more palatable descriptions, and freely make excuse its reality. It is even feted in popular media, as the Mardi Gras coverage indicates.

To offer one more quote from the Catholic Catechism: “Following St. Paul, the Church has always taught that the overwhelming misery which oppresses men and their inclination towards evil and death cannot be understood apart from their connection with Adam's sin and the fact that he has transmitted to us a sin with which we are all born afflicted, a sin which is the "death of the soul". (CCC 403) 

Of course, St Paul is not intending to leave the matter there. He sets the scene for explaining what God did through Christ to address this affliction on humanity. If sin has come through Adam, then salvation has come through Christ, he explains. Wherever sin exists, God's judgement cannot but be focused on it, otherwise God would reach a compromise with sin and the very distinction itself between good and evil would no longer exist.

The Vatican II document on the Church in the Modern World (GS 37) stated that “The whole of man's history has been the story of dour combat with the powers of evil, stretching, so our Lord tells us, from the very dawn of history until the last day. Finding himself in the midst of the battlefield man has to struggle to do what is right, and it is at great cost to himself, and aided by God's grace, that he succeeds in achieving his own inner integrity”.

We must struggle against sin. We know this. We know the discordant passions that flow through our hearts. We know lure of riches. We know the struggle to be chaste in mind, heart and body. We know the pangs of jealousy, or the harbouring of bitterness. We know the desire for revenge. We know our cold heartedness and our resistance to do what is good.

Sin has penetrated into the depths of every human person and into the depths of humanity. We must unmask the true reality of sin, so that we able to manage its defeat. Until we can call sin, sin, we cannot begin to effectively deal with it. As long as we dismiss it, or excuse it, or rename it, sin is not being identified in its true nature.

It is like the alcoholic. As long as the alcoholic does not admit that there is a problem he cannot help himself or be helped. The alcoholism commands and destroys his life. Only when we can admit to our sin, can we be helped to overcome it.

This is what the season of Lent offers us each year. It is the time to look hard at ourselves and admit to the reality of sin in our lives. In this we make no excuses nor dismiss its seriousness.

In the end, there is only one thing to do: we need to be able to say, “I am a sinner”. Until those words are said with deep personal conviction we will not be able to overcome our sins.

And we when identify our sins, then we are drawn to seek reconciliation with God. Then are the floodgates of mercy opened for us. Then grace flows afresh in our lives.

Archbishop Julian Porteous
Saturday, 4 March 2017