Saturday, March 22, 2014

"Ego te absolvo a peccatis tuis in nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti." (An invitation to hear God's words spoken through the lips of one of His sinful creatures who, like each of us, no matter how weak, God can still use to reveal His forgiveness, compassion and love. On the Third Sunday of Lent, John 4:5-42)

"God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son, has reconciled the world to Himself and has sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church,  may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit". 

Of the many things that distinguish us Catholics from our Protestant brothers and sisters, none perhaps does it more than that reality which allows us to speak of ‘sacraments’, to use signs and symbols like oil, bread, and wine, to regard good works as important, and finally, to regard such things as crucifixes, rosaries, holy water, scapulars, etc., as revelatory, albeit in a very limited sense, of God’s presence in our lives. What allows for such kind of thinking? What reality lies behind these practices?

It is the profound Catholic belief that God’s creation, no matter how fallen, fragile, and sometimes fraught with pain, evil and suffering, remains fundamentally good. In spite of the narrative of the Third Chapter of Genesis (The Fall), Catholicism has always insisted that the true ‘lens’ by which we should see all of life remains the heart of the First and Second Chapters of the same book (The Goodness of God’s Creation).

In contrast, Martin Luther’s thought—which in a very deep way affects fundamental Protestant theology and its view of the human person and his world—remains anchored in the story of humanity’s Fall. All grace has been lost, human nature, everything in this world, including nature itself is fallen, sinful, corrupt, and depraved. We are all, in Luther’s words, “piles of dung”. How then are we saved according to him? Jesus “cloaks” us with himself, wraps a mantle or blanket around us so that when God sees us and is about to strike us down because of our sins, he instead sees his son, and relents.

We can never be truly "good", from this point of view. Only Christ is good; and so he must "wrap" or "clothe" us with himself lest God see the putrid, decaying flesh that is our humanity. Thomas Aquinas' statement that "grace builds upon nature" was unacceptable to Luther. For there is nothing that ultimately, grace can truly build upon. "Grace alone" saves us. Nature, in and by itself, is destined for the ash heap; there is nothing, absolutely nothing, good or worthy in it. 

And hence, nothing we do, no matter how great - not even the titanic acts of generosity, charity, kindness, and love of the holiest of saints - can ever contribute even one iota towards our salvation. "Faith alone" saves us; and thus, nothing, no doctrine, no sacred object, ritual, word, or  action, can lend any aid towards making us acceptable to God. Nothing except "Scripture alone" is reliable.

It is perhaps one of the most basic differences between Catholicism and Protestantism, therefore, that that despite the Fall, we Catholics continue to hold and insist that God’s creation did not lose its inherent goodness. God’s grace which was our original birthright was not totally obliterated and destroyed. God’s grace continues to lift nature and human nature allowing it to reveal or manifest the presence of God. “Grace”, says St. Thomas Aquinas, “does not destroy nature, but builds on it and brings it to perfection”. 

And so we Catholics believe that ordinary bread and wine, water, signs, symbols, statues, words, gestures, our works, our community—even if they are weak and inadequate, can still be disclosures,  manifestations, theophanies - or revelations, of God’s continued presence. They are limited for sure, but reveal God's presence they nonetheless do.

This Sunday, I invite us all to reflect upon this profound and beautiful truth about our faith tradition and relate it to one of the Catholic sacraments that’s often neglected, and misunderstood, at times, even by us Catholics ourselves: the Sacrament of Penance or Reconciliation.

Ask a non-Catholic why he doesn’t believe in Confession, and the response you’ll most likely get is: “I confess my sins directly to God. The priest is just a human being. Who is he to hear my confession and forgive my sins?” 

Do you know that we priests are supposed to go to Confession ourselves? Canon Law (the law of the church) reminds us priests of the value and importance of going to Confession. When I first entered seminary, that was one of the things I wondered about: "What am I going to do when I’m a priest? Who’s going to hear my confession?" Well, the answer turned out to be quite simple, another priest. 

"I go directly to God himself." "I confess my sins directly to God." While these statements sound very pious and devout, what's underneath all of them is really an idea that goes directly against the heart of what it means to be Catholic.

For what these statements are really saying is this: “I go directly to God himself, because I really have difficulty trusting anything and anyone on this earth, because everything and everyone on this earth is fallen, sinful, corrupt, depraved, and perverted. I trust no one. I believe no one; in fact at times, I can’t even trust and belief in myself”.

It is, perhaps, the ultimate non-Catholic statement.

In today’s gospel reading, there’s something peculiar to the Samaritan woman’s actions. She’s getting water from a well about a mile outside town—in the middle of the day, when it’s too hot in the area and you could get sunstroke. Why? She was avoiding people. She meets Jesus and immediately she’s defensive: “Why are you, a Jew, and a man, asking me, a Samaritan, and a woman, for a drink?"  

Jesus asks her to call her husband and she says: “I have no husband”. He tells her about worshiping God, and she responds by going around in circles. This was a woman who was paranoid, who trusted no one, not her neighbors, not Jesus, and not even herself. “I have no husband”, she says; we can almost hear the defiance, but also the pain and woundedness, in her voice.

Here was a woman who had completely lost sight of the goodness of others, of the world, and even of herself.

She was probably afraid of being condemned, of being looked down upon, of being shunned and made an even bigger outcast. Instead, Jesus reveals to her the truth about herself, “Truly you have no husband, for you’ve had five, and the man you’re living with now isn’t your husband either”.  

Yet there was no condemnation in his voice; there was only love, only acceptance, only grace.

And she needed to hear that. She needed to feel that. She needed those words coming from the lips of another human being.

The Sacrament of Reconciliation, of Penance, is a way for us to have the same experience, to hear and to listen the sound of those words spoken to us: “I absolve you from your sins, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit”.

It isn’t the priest who forgives us—because like us he too is sinful. Rather it is God, who despite the fallenness, weakness, and sinfulness of human nature and of creation—still reveals himself to us through these instruments.

That is what we Catholics believe. That is what separates us and distinguishes us from Protestants. That is what allows us to believe in signs, in symbols, in our good works, in bread and wine, in the sacraments.

The Samaritan woman experienced the healing power of God spoken through words. Perhaps this Lent, you may consider the Sacrament of Confession once again, and allow yourself to hear God’s words spoken through the lips of a sinful creature, who like each one of us, no matter how sinful, can be used by God to reveal his presence in the world.

When was the last time we came to the Sacrament of Confession? God will never force us to do it. Neither will the church. But today, we are all invited, to consider it once more. And like the Samaritan woman, allow ourselves to hear words Jesus himself speaks to us: “I absolve you from your sins, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit”.

"The Kingdom of Heaven is a condition of the heart." (Friedrich Nietzsche)