Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time – February 19, 2006 – Blessed Sacrament
There is wisdom in the Church’s choice of today’s reading from the prophet Isaiah to prepare us for the Gospel we have just heard, in which the healing of a paralyzed man is presented as the proof that “the Son of Man has authority to forgive sins on earth.”
It is natural, and not really wrong, to emphasize the importance of that assurance for individual sinners. After all, Jesus was healing and forgiving that individual man, lowered down in front of him by the extraordinary efforts of his friends.
But the passage from Isaiah places this individual blessing in the context of a larger blessing that comes to Israel through the ministry of Jesus. The prophet was speaking during Israel’s exile in Babylon, which he and his predecessors had interpreted as punishment for Israel’s infidelity to God. In the chapter from which today’s reading is taken, God arises, the Holy One of Israel steps forward as Redeemer. The Exodus from Egypt is alluded to as his great act in the past, but hardly is that memory evoked, when the prophet rushes on with the word of the Lord: “Remember not the events of the past, the things of long ago consider not: see I am doing something new!” That new thing will be the return of Israel from exile, her restoration in the Holy Land. This is what is meant when God promises: “I am he, I am he, who wipe out your offenses, for my own sake; your sins I remember no more.”
The claim of Jesus to have authority to forgive sins, seen against this background, is a claim to be the one in whom God is fulfilling that promise. Jesus came announcing the coming of the Reign of God, and here he repeats his Gospel in the form of the announcement of the restoration of Israel. It is God’s messianic forgiveness that Jesus announces and embodies.
It is within that broad context that the announcement of forgiveness comes to each individual, to each of us. The word of the Lord the prophet announces has application to us also: “Behold, I am doing something new! … I myself wipe out your offenses; your sins I remember no more.” It is a precise description of what is at stake when forgiveness is needed, as a moment’s reflection reveals. Consider what happens when one person wrongs another in a serious way, in a way that destroys a relationship because it destroys the trust on which it lies. Consider it as if you were yourself the person who has done the damage, betrayed the trust, undone the union. It is not something that you can reconstitute by yourself; you may wish to restore it, but whether that can happen depends almost entirely on the person you have injured. Whether there can be anything new, a new relationship, a restored trust, a recovered union, depends on whether the other person can forgive. Forgiveness, in a quite literal sense, is re-creative. Anyone who has been in a situation of needing to be forgiven knows what I am talking about.
That is what Jesus was talking about, what he was announcing: that he, the Son of Man, has authority to forgive sins on earth. His whole ministry, all he said and did, all he was, was, as St. Paul says in today’s second reading, God’s Yes to all his promises. This is a passage particularly dear to me: I chose it as the text on one of the prayer cards printed on the occasion of my ordination to the priesthood. I used it in the version in the New English Bible: “Jesus Christ is the Yes pronounced upon all God’s promises. That is why, when we give glory to God, it is through Jesus Christ that we say Amen.”
The passage is wonderfully realized in this liturgy. The Word of God once again expresses God’s Yes to his promises, and we respond with the Amen of our Credo. The death and resurrection that embody that Yes become present here among us in the eucharistic sacrifice, and we respond with the great Amen: It is through him, with him, and in him that we give all glory and honor to God.
Lent begins this Wednesday, Ash Wednesday, and it is time to be thinking of the great opportunity it represents for us to remind ourselves of the great grace in which we stand, the knowledge that God’s forgiveness is available to us in Christ and through his sacraments. It is perhaps time, too, to be thinking also of any of our fractured relationships, and of doing what we can to heal them, of praying that we may hear the words of forgiveness from another, of having the courage, and love, of saying them ourselves: our echo of the great words we all rejoice to hear today: “Behold, I am doing something new!” “Your sins are forgiven!”