Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time – February 19, 2012 – St. John’s
Our second reading has one of those statements that briefly sum up the essential Christian message. In a slightly different translation than the one we heard, it says: “Jesus Christ is the ‘Yes’ pronounced upon all God’s promises; that is why, when we give glory to God, it is through Christ Jesus that we say ‘Amen!’” Jesus Christ is God’s Yes to his promises and the Amen of our thanksgiving. A message echoed each Mass at the end of our great prayer, when we say: “Through him you give us all that is good, and through him, with him, and in him all glory and honor is yours, almighty Father, for ever and ever. Amen.”
Every blessing we receive comes from Christ. And the great blessing emphasized in today’s readings is the forgiveness of our sins. In the first reading the prophet, preaching during Israel’s exile, urges her not to remember ancient deeds, but to look forward to the new thing that God is about to do. We are then told what that is: “I am the one, I am the one, who will wipe out your offenses for my own sake; your sins I remember no more.” Christians, of course, read this in the light of Christ. We are not to remember the Exodus from Egypt or Israel’s return from Exile except as figures of the new thing God did in Christ who came, as today’s Gospel shows, with “authority on earth to forgive sins.”
Both Covenants are full of this promise that God will forget our sins. Ezekiel has this word of the Lord: “If a wicked person turns away from the wickedness he has been committing and keeps all my statutes and does what is lawful and right, he shall surely live; he shall not die. I will not remember the transgressions he has been committing.” And the reason for this, the prophet says, in another word of the Lord: “I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way, and live” (Ez 18:21-23). Then there is the Psalmist: “The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love…. He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor requite us according to our iniquities. For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us” (Ps 103:8-12). And there is that of Christ himself: “ There is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine who have no need of repentance. Rejoice with me: I have found the sheep that was lost; I have found the coin that was lost; I have found the son who was lost” (Lk 15).
It is a nice coincidence–or an act of Providence!–that these readings come before us a few days before Lent begins–Ash Wednesday is this week. It is a time set apart from the rest of the year for us to do some reflecting on how seriously we are taking our Christian lives; and for that reason it is a time for acknowledging the respects in which we have something to repent. St. Augustine in his time faced the problem of people who kept postponing their baptism because they were not ready to give up ways of living that Christians could not follow. In one of his sermons he imagined a dialogue with a person who kept putting off conversion, confident that when he does, the Lord will forgive him. “Yes, indeed,” Augustine replied, “when you turn back, he will forgive you, but when is that ‘when’ of yours? Why is it not today? Why not as you listen to me? … Why not today? Why not now?”
But Augustine was also concerned about people who suffered from the opposite temptation, not presumption, but despair. And this time he spoke of the Lord knocking on the door and shouting Ezekiel’s promise: “‘On whatever day a person turns back, I will forget all his iniquities.’ Hearing and believing his voice, people are re-created out of their despair, and they emerge from that deep, deepest whirlpool in which they had been drowning.”
We can surely take these double exhortations and apply them to ourselves as we enter upon Lent. We may find ourselves in either one of these situations. We may be coasting, more or less vaguely knowing that there are things we ought to change in our behavior, sins to repent of, and presuming that we will have time to repent, perhaps even making our own the supremely dishonest prayer Augustine was honest enough to admit he had once prayed: “Lord, make me chaste, but not yet!” When is the “when” of your conversion going to come? Augustine asks. Why not today? Why not now?
Or we may be in that whirlpool of despair, drowning because we do not believe that we can be forgiven, unable ourselves to forget what we have done, sure that God cannot forget it either. Yet that is what he has promised us as the “new thing” he does in Christ: “I am the one, I am the one, who wipe out your offenses for my own sake; your sins I remember no more.” As Augustine said in another sermon, we can at least cry out: “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. Lord, hear my prayer!” “Those who cry out from the depths,” he said,” are not completely in the depths; their very cry lifts them. Others are more deeply in the depths because they do not even know they are in the depths.” At least we can cry out, “Lord, hear my prayer!”
One final note, again from Augustine. Commenting on today’s Gospel, he spoke of people suffering from an “inner paralysis,” unable to bring themselves to Christ. He said that preachers who announce the mystery of God’s forgiveness are like the men who broke through the roof and lowered the paralytic and placed him before Christ. I find it a wonderful image of the ministry of preaching, or of reconciliation, which is to bring Christ to people and to bring people to Christ, confident that his first word to them will always be: “Child, your sins are forgiven.”