The penitential season

Today is Ash Wednesday, which begins the Christian season of Lent.

Today is also Catholic Blog Day, which, despite my not being a Catholic blogger (or perhaps as an ex-Catholic blogger, or a non-Roman non-Orthodox Catholic blogger), intrigues me:

All Catholic bloggers are invited to write on a common theme for the day. By speaking with many voices on a common aspect of the faith, we can help evangelize the digital continent and demonstrate the powerful presence of Catholics online.

The theme for February 22 is: penance.

Penance is defined as “repentance of sins.” The term also refers to the Roman Catholic Church’s Sacrament of Penance, which during the 1970s got renamed the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

Our previous priest (“rector,” not “pastor,” because the pastor of every Episcopal church is Jesus Christ) called the church “countercultural.” He was certainly right, because our self-esteem society, where all viewpoints are valid, has little tolerance for such radical ideas as our being sinners — people who, having been given free will by God, do wrong things and need to atone for our actions and seek forgiveness from those we’ve wronged. It’s as if we’ve all bought into Stuart Smalley:

Part of the reason is, I think, an incomplete reading of Christ’s forgiveness of sins. When the Pharisees brought the “woman caught in adultery” in John 8:3–11 trying to get an endorsement of her stoning, Jesus replied, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” After all the sinners left, Jesus told the woman, “Neither do I condemn you: go, and sin no more.”

There’s also Christ’s admonition that begins chapter 7 of Matthew, which must be read beyond the first seven words but usually isn’t:

Judge not, that you be not judged. For with what judgment you judge, you shall be judged: and with what measure you mete, it shall be measured to you again. And why behold you the mote that is in your brother’s eye, but consider not the beam that is in your own eye? Or how will you say to your brother, Let me pull out the mote out of your eye; and, behold, a beam is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of your own eye; and then shall you see clearly to cast out the mote out of your brother’s eye.

The Provocative Christian explains this well:

When Jesus said that we should not judge unless we be judged also, he was not saying that we are to never judge if behavior is sin or not. What he was doing was giving us a caution to make sure that we are willing to be judged by the same standard of judgment. This verse is not a warning against judging an action. It is a warning against self deception and hypocrisy. …

Before you ever start to tell someone else what is wrong with their life, make sure you take a good look at your own life first. But notice, Jesus does not say, take the log out of your own eye and don’t say anything about the speck in the others person’s eye. That would be the result of never judging anyone about anything. Instead Jesus says that after you take care of your own stuff, then go and help your brother. So you are to help then with their issue but only once you have done a personal spiritual check to make sure that you are right with God. …

In the Lord’s Prayer we pray that God would forgive us as we forgive others. Well in order to forgive someone, you have to first, “judge” that they have done something wrong. The very act of forgiveness that Jesus teaches so clearly, requires that we identify some behavior as wrong. To fail to judge it as wrong or sinful in the first place, makes it impossible to forgive.

Secondly, the Bible is filled with admonitions that we avoid evil, flee from temptation, cling to what is good and lovely. In order to do that, we have to make judgment calls. We have to decide that one thing is good and another is not. We make these decisions all that time as a matter of course in life. We do it if we are a follower of Jesus or not. Everyone has somethings that they decide are right to to and others that are not. Every society and culture has these things and every member of those cultures has to think and decide, has to judge what behaviors fit the standard.

I am not a theologian, but it seems to me that to be a Christian worthy of the title requires more than acknowledging Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior; it does require being “right with God.” Christ died to atone for all our sins. But if that was all being a Christian required, then there would have been no need for the New Testament beyond the four Gospels. Being a real live Christian requires a real effort to live a virtuous life, by example and not merely words, and help others who need help — in other words, to live a life worthy of Christ’s sacrifice for us.

(The public attempts of presidential candidate Mitt Romney and quarterback Tim Tebow to lead that virtuous life have led to interesting strong negative public reactions, which tell you a lot about our culture today. It’s as if people feel threatened by someone else’s living the kind of  life we should aspire to.)

Since we all fail in living a life worthy of Christ’s sacrifice for us, every Sunday Catholic and Episcopal Mass includes an admission of our shortcomings. Catholic priests have three forms from which to choose for General Confession:

I confess to almighty God,
and to you, my brothers and sisters,
that I have greatly sinned
in my thoughts and in my words,
in what I have done,
and in what I have failed to do;
through my fault
through my fault
through my most grievous fault
Therefore, I ask blessed Mary, ever virgin,
all the angels and saints,
and you, my brothers and sisters,
to pray for me to the Lord our God.

One of the priests at our Madison church would begin the Penitential Act by inviting parishioners to recall our previous week’s moments of “sin against God, against each other and against ourselves,” because those were the three involved “when we sin — when we reject God’s love.”

Most Episcopal churches use the shorter Rite Two form of the Penitential Order  …

Most merciful God,
we confess that we have sinned against you
in thought, word, and deed,
by what we have done,
and by what we have left undone.
We have not loved you with our whole heart;
we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.
For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ,
have mercy on us and forgive us;
that we may delight in your will,
and walk in your ways,
to the glory of your Name. Amen.

… instead of the longer and more stern Rite One version:

Almighty God,
Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,
maker of all things, judge of all men:
We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins
and wickedness,
which we from time to time most grievously have committed,
by thought, word, and deed, against thy divine Majesty,
provoking most justly thy wrath and indignation against us.
We do earnestly repent,
and are heartily sorry for these our misdoings;
the remembrance of them is grievous unto us,
the burden of them is intolerable.
Have mercy upon us,
have mercy upon us, most merciful Father;
for thy Son our Lord Jesus Christ’s sake,
forgive us all that is past;
and grant that we may ever hereafter
serve and please thee in newness of life,
to the honor and glory of thy Name;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Nothing feel-good about any of that, is there? And yet it helps remind us that we are not the center of the universe, but we’re all very flawed people who do things we shouldn’t do and don’t do things we should do. Another word for that is “conscience.” Or, if you prefer, “reality.”

5 thoughts on “The penitential season

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