Sunday, April 6, 2014

Not From Fear, But From Love

During the time of Lent, the Church, in the name of God, renews her appeal to repentance. It is the call to change one’s life. Conversion is not the question of a moment or a time of the year, it is an undertaking that lasts one’s entire lifetime. Who among us can presume not to be a sinner? No one. We are all sinners.

The Apostle John writes: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 Jn 1:8-9). And that is what is happening during this celebration and throughout this day of penance.

The Word of God that we heard introduces us to two essential elements of Christian life. The first: putting on the new nature. The new man, “created after the likeness of God” (Eph 4:24), is born in Baptism, when one receives the very life of God, which renders us his children and incorporates us into Christ and his Church.

This new life permits us to look at reality with different eyes, without being distracted by things that don't matter and cannot last long, from things that perish with time. For this we are called to abandon the behavior of sin and fix our gaze on what is essential.

“A man is more precious for what he is than for what he has” (Gaudium et spes, n. 35). This is the difference between life deformed by sin and life illumined by grace. From the heart of the person renewed in the likeness of God comes good behavior: to speak always the truth and avoid all deceit; not to steal, but rather to share all you have with others, especially those in need; not to give in to anger, resentment and revenge, but to be meek, magnanimous and ready to forgive; not to gossip which ruins the good name of people, but to look more at the good side of everyone. It is a matter of clothing oneself in the new man, with these new attitudes.

Pope Francis, Penance Service, March 28, 2014

Reflection – Well, it’s been quite awhile since I’ve had any papal blogging, and so it seems timely to check in with Pope Francis and what he’s been saying lately. This is from that famous penance service which included that shocking (shocking, I tell you!!!) picture of the Pope going to confession at St. Peter’s.

Apparently it is unprecedented in the history of ever for popes to go to confession and no one ever had any idea that popes went to confession and isn’t this just the most amazing pope in the history of ever and zzzzz…. Oops, sorry. Drifted off there for a minute.

Popes always go to confession, you know – he just happened to do it in a public setting, which doesn't strike me as being quite the stop-the-presses event people treated it as. Personally, I found it a bit unseemly that the picture of it got distributed and commented on to the extent that it did—I guess I have a real sense that in the confessional each of us, even the Pope, is kneeling before Jesus in such a stance of vulnerability and humility, of abject need, that decency requires we draw a veil of privacy over it, even if it is done in a public setting. But I realize we live in a world where decency is a premium.

Perhaps that is why previous popes have conducted that aspect of their personal spiritual lives in private—it really isn’t good for us to ooh and aah over a fellow Christian as he brings his sins to Jesus. But at any rate, let’s talk about what the Pope said, and leave what he did between him and Our Lord, where it belongs.

He is emphasizing here the fundamentally positive aspect of repentance and conversion. Before it is ‘repentance from’, it is always ‘repentance towards’—the only reason for us to turn away from sin and cleave to Christ is because God/moral goodness/the Gospel are better than sin and self-will and the free exercise of the passions.

We have a vision of life given to us in Christ that is not simply some external Law imposed on us with a  threat of hell fire if we disobey it. Rather, God in Christ is offering us the fulfillment of our humanity, the path of life that yields joy and peace in abundance, the way of love in the world that in the end satisfies all our human longings and desires like nothing else can. This way of love may, and almost certainly does, require sacrifice and strain, bitter pain at times and terrible renunciations at others, but it is our belief that all of this is the price of joy and eternal bliss.

And that is why we turn from sin and turn back to God. Not fear, but love. Indeed, one could argue that it is enlightened self-interest on our part to do so, but the simple fact of the matter is, revealed by Christ, that we are only truly happy when we give ourselves over to the path of love of God and love of neighbor. This is the essential reality we are to fix our gaze upon, and out of that essential reality flows everything else there is to say about moral living and righteous conduct.

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