Ash Wednesday, 22 Feb 23
When did you last sin? It’s alright I’m not going to get you to share that answer with your neighbour! It’s a tricky question and I suspect for most if not all of us there is probably just a bit of a blank and if we said anything in response to the question, “When did you last sin?” I suspect the answer would be, “I don’t know.”
I wonder if this should worry us. For, if Lent is the time for us to wage war on sin - “taking up battle against spiritual evils,” as in the Collect - and if we are not sure what sin there is in our life then how can we expel it? A commander in battle wouldn’t just make rather bland statements: ‘the enemy’s out there somewhere and we need to do something about it.’ There’d need to be details: where, how strong, any weaknesses in their defence, where do they get their food supply from etc etc.
We might recall a similar mindset the exploration made in Numbers 13 by Moses and the leaders, among them his future successor Joshua. They’ve been to Sinai and are travelling through the wilderness and they’ve been promised the land of Canaan by God. So they go to reconnoitre the land, to suss it out. Joshua and the others go there and it is indeed rich, flowing with milk and honey, with huge grapes. They spent forty days there: significant as we similarly embark on a forty day period of discernment. But they return to Moses and are worried because of the people they saw there: they are “are strong, and the towns are fortified and very large; and besides we saw the descendants of Anak there” (13:28). These were giants; this was a problem.
Many of the spies who had gone with Joshua and Caleb thought the problems too big, the inhabitants of Canaan too strong. But Caleb and Joshua believed otherwise. My friends, we need to have a clear sense of the holiness to which we are called and the beauty of a life offered to God. Let’s read then about the saints and their lives, consider their love of the Lord and especially the time they spend in silent prayer before the Blessed Sacrament, our Lord’s presence in the Bread of the Mass. Consider too the hardships they endured and how that didn’t make them bitter. Think of the peace and joy given to those in Heaven despite their sins and all because of the gracious gift of God, who sends His Son to die on the Cross.
The strength of so many of our sins is not necessarily their severity or wickedness but that they are so embedded in our life. We don’t notice they’re there. We think they’re just part of who we are, which others have to learn to deal with. We can’t conceive being ourselves without that impulse, that hatred, that desire, that mistrust, that apathy. Such sins are indeed very powerful for very few will challenge us over them. They’re not illegal, everyone does it after all, don’t they?
We need to be clear about which sins we are seeking to remove because of the warning we heard in that first reading from Joel 2: “Let your hearts be broken, not your garments torn.” For it would be all too easy for us to give up chocolate, attend Stations of the Cross, continue Mass every Sunday, not kill anyone etc and for us to end Lent exactly the same as we began and still think we’ve kept a holy Lent. But if we’re not truly contrite for our sins we will not have heeded the words God gives to Joel, we will have simply torn up our garments but not our hearts. It’s the same message of our Lord’s teaching in the Gospel we’ve just heard, warning us against hypocrisy and shallow devotions we make.
This search for our sin should affect how we read the Scriptures. What sins do we see our Lord condemning in the Gospels and where do we see them in our life? Take’s today’s Gospel from the Sermon on the Mount, from which we’ve heard for the last three Sundays: seeking the praise of others, giving our money to the Church and to help others, being more generous when we know people are looking, how we make our prayers look impressive yet our hearts - which is that secret place Jesus mentions - this heart is not turning to the Lord. When do our acts of piety get trumpeted before others? Equally serious though surely, is our life so devoid of acts of devotion that there’d be nothing to say?!
Psalm 50/51 is one of the seven penitential psalms and so one particular appropriate for this season. Note the statement he is able to make: “My offences truly I know them; my sin is always before me.” Awareness of sin should never paralyse us. Making a Confession, especially in this season of Lent is a great way to ensure we get the balance right. Making a Confession is when we make an arrangement to go and see a priest and say to God out loud what we have done wrong and what we have failed to do. We say it out loud because this helps us to own the sins: they are our fault. But it also enables the priest to give advice to help us on our Christian pilgrimage. It means too the priest can then speak words of absolution, assuring us that through the Lord’s death on the Cross we can know forgiveness of those sins. It gets the balance right for we identify what is actually sinful; but puts it all in the context of forgiveness rather than becoming a reason to feel bad about ourselves or mistrustful of the world around us. Just make an appointment with a priest and this gift can be yours too.
May this Lent be a time of blessing for us individually and for the whole family of Christ’s people. And may our awareness of sin set us free from its often invisible hold over us, that we may share in Christ’s victory over sin and death when we get to the Easter celebrations.