Lent I, 6 Mar 22
Can a leopard change its spots? It’s actually a verse from the Bible (which I must confess I’d forgotten) found in Jeremiah 13:23. It is given unsurprisingly as an analogy of how difficult it is to remove sin. The spots of the leopard cannot be washed away. The stain of our sin can be washed away, of course, but it is difficult. As God says through the prophet Isaiah, “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow,” (Isaiah 1:18). There’s also the strong image of Lady Macbeth in Shakespeare’s play. Having conspired in the murder of the King her conscience plagues her and is discovered at the beginning of Act 5 constantly washing her hands: “Out, damned spot, out, I say. … Here’s the smell of blood still. All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand.”
This is guilt. In the way we use the word it can mean different things. We say we feel guilty sometimes when we do something and we’re not sure whether it was wrong or not: there may not have been anything wrong with it but we have a guilty feeling. We should be worried when this is the case because guilt is not a feeling: when we believe it to be so the danger is that we will not know when something we have done wrong is a sin because we do not feel guilty. Someone who is accustomed to murdering others will not feel guilty but will still be guilty of sin.
But sometimes we feel guilty because we are guilty of having done that which is wrong or failed to do that which we had a duty to do. Guilt is a condemnation, the state we are in because of the harm we have done. It is the word for the estrangement, the separation between us and others, and this exists not just between us and the the people we have hurt or vice versa: the sin we commit against someone else makes us more of a stranger to all people.
Guilt is a first step towards contrition, which is a sorrow for the sins we have committed. Sometimes when someone dies or we’re tense about something we don’t cry for a while about it and then suddenly we let it all out. It’s almost a happy relief when we do. Contrition is like this: the sorrow for the sin means we’re on a path to rehabilitation. We looked at our Study Group two weeks ago where Paul mentions to the Corinthians that he writes to them “through many tears” (II Corinthians 2:4) and we discussed how tears can be a gift sometimes.
Contrition is a pre-requisite for forgiveness. It has three elements: sorrow for sins committed, a hatred for them and a resolve not to commit them again. When the priest prays for us when we start to make a Confession to him, he says, “May the Lord be in your heart and help you to confess your sins with true sorrow.” There’s a chance for us to make a Confession to a priest on the Wednesday of Holy Week at St Mary’s or you can just make an appointment with one of us before then via email or after Mass. The aim is the clean heart which the psalmist prays for, as we heard at Mass on Ash Wednesday, “A pure heart create for me, O God, put a steadfast spirit within me,” (Psalm 51:10).
We see in this, I hope, how changing is a process, which can take some time, moving from committing to awareness of guilt to sorrow to trying to live an amended life to a straightened life. And, of course, at the same time we’re dealing with all the other problems of life. Our life on earth is a chance to get these things sorted. This is the meaning, surely, of St Peter’s words, “think of the Lord’s patience as your opportunity for us to be saved,” (II Peter 3:15). God has given us time to amend our lives before the judgement we receive at the end of our life on earth. As God tells Ezekiel to remind the people: “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live,” (Ezekiel 33:11). We are reminded in this season of Lent that we are to change. As St John Henry Newman said, “To live is to change and to be perfect is to have changed often.” God doesn’t change and this is because He is perfect. We are not perfect and so need to change.
Our Gospel reading today as always on the First Sunday of Lent is the account of the three temptations Jesus endured in the wilderness during these forty days of Lent. It’s a moment in reality of the clash of the titans - good versus evil, Satan face-to-face with God - but given with a simplicity and matter of factness that makes it almost a domestic occurrence. Rarely in Scripture do God and Satan come face to face. At the start of the Book of Job the evil one comes from his wandering on earth to ask the Almighty about his faithful servant, Job. In the healing miracles of our Lord, evil comes face to face with Him and the spirits are terrified.
What’s striking perhaps is that neither of these characters is going to change. God is not going to give in to temptation. It is a huge testimony to what God is willing to endure for our salvation that He empties Himself to the point that He can even be tempted. There’s a beautiful reflection on this in the letter to the Hebrews, of course, “We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathise with us in our weakness, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.” This gives us confidence to approach the throne of mercy and to find help (Hebrews 4:15).
Satan too is never going to change. The Church’s doctrine teaches us that He and His fallen angels are beyond redemption for our Lord describes them as being a permanent feature of hell (St Matthew 25:41). No human being is beyond redemption on this earth but we must turn to the Lord. Satan does frequently change his tack. He is constantly on the look out to lure us away, convincing us his way is best really. J M Neale translated a beautiful hymn we rarely sing which bids us remember the enemies of the Lord working within “striving, tempting, luring, goading in to sin.” We are bidden to smite them by the merit of the Holy Cross.
And just as Jesus looks at Satan in this passage, so during this season of Lent we are to look at our sins, at our disordered affections and our inflations of our own importance. Looking at that which is sinful and seeing it for what it is takes the power out of it. Remember also how the people of God were being bitten by snakes and were dying in Numbers 21:6-9. The cure was to gaze upon the bronze serpent made by Moses, to look at a model of that which was causing death. This examination leads to life.
It’s worth us recognising how we have changed over the years, hopefully for the better, hopefully closer to the Lord than once we were, hopefully a more earnest member of the Church, hopefully with a livelier faith. We need to remember too what this changed state will look like though. Being changed for the better means we will still have questions and uncertainties about who God is and how He works. Being changed for the better won’t mean we think we are perfect, indeed it probably means we will have a greater awareness of how we fall from the call of the Lord. One of the things that strikes me when I read the prayers of the saints is how aware of their sin they were. Sanctity mustn’t be confused with self-righteousness or pride. Be warned too that as we change for the better and give greater glory to God so it is highly likely we will become a more tantalising target for the Devil. So often, people start coming to Church or doing some holy work and they are led astray. The devil doesn’t like it.
One grace we can pray for is an awareness of what we would be like without our faith. I’m pretty clear what I’d be like if I hadn’t heard the call of God and wasn’t trying to follow Him with successes and failures along the way. My life would probably be quite “fun” in some superficial senses of that word but not very edifying. The message of our first reading from Deuteronomy 26 is the importance attached to our beginnings. Moses is describing what happens when the people present the first fruits, being carried in the panniers, the big baskets that hang either side of oxen. The pronouncement folk are to make is a statement of where they have come from: “My father was a wandering Aramean etc etc.” God has raised me up and set me free, in others words. All I am today it is because God has given it to me.
So prepare to be changed, my friends, in this season of Lent. That person can be forgiven. That lie need never be told again. That irreverence need never be part of your life again. At the end of the Gospel today, St Luke tells us that Satan departs having failed but will “return at the appointed time.” This is at the Cross, when the Son of Man is lifted up from the earth, when our sins nail the Lord of life to the Cross. Presumably the temptation then was to come down from the Cross, as the Thief who failed to say sorry taunted our Saviour to do, as we’ll hear when we gather on Good Friday 15th April. We’re changed by the Cross, the Lord’s life poured out to forgive and to heal. Let’s consider too then how we’ll be changed by the days of Lent between now and Good Friday and imagine how we could be then by God’s amazing grace at work within us and our community.