"Lord, heal my soul for I have sinned against you"
(Readings: Isaiah 43:18-19, 21-22, 24-25; 2 Corinthians 1:18-22; Mark 2:1-12)
Introduction to Mass
The drama of God's relationship with humanity, played out in the course of history, is a drama of human sin and divine forgiveness. Our sinfulness is a complex reality and we should resist the temptation to over-simplify it, to wish it away or - the opposite tendency - to distort the message of scripture as a tale of human worthlessness meeting God's anger and condemnation.
Instead we need a healthy realism about our tendency to fall short of our calling as creatures made in God's own image and a solid conviction of God's will to heal us and restore that image.
To prepare ourselves to celebrate Mass this Sunday, we first call to mind our own faults and failings and we ask God for his pardon and strength.
The lines of Isaiah in the first reading today express a reality of spiritual life which is well-known to the prophet himself and to all men and women of mature faith: the reality of human sinfulness on our side and the unceasing effort to rescue us on God's, the spilling-out of his mercy to heal the breach that divides us from each other and from him.
I say that this reality is well-known to men and women of mature faith because it seems that many people today prefer to reject the biblical picture of sin and redemption in favour of a shallow religiosity which downplays the scriptural belief that human nature is radically disordered.
According to this new religiosity "sin" is a depressing subject, a notion that reflects an exaggerated pessimism about human nature, a tool used by the clergy, perhaps, to fill believers with self-doubt and make them submissive to church authority.
Modern religiosity in its various guises is apt to be uplifting and inspiring instead - one-sidedly so. It promises a sense of fulfilment and contentment, provides "motivation" and tends emotional bruises. People who think of religion in these categories are sometimes surprised to discover that Christian spirituality envisages a more thorough and disciplined overhaul of attitudes and lifestyle: more of a cold shower with carbolic soap, perhaps, than a warm bath with candles and scented oils!
In the correct Christian perspective, consciousness of sin doesn't imply self-hatred or a sense of unworthiness that can only evoke feelings of misery and depression. Sin refers to the mysterious tragedy of our separation from God and our incompleteness without God. Instead of mirroring God perfectly as creatures made in his image and likeness our resemblance to him is faint. So when we talk, as Christians, about sin, all we're saying is that we lack God's quality of perfect holiness and perfect love: and the starting point of the spiritual life must be to recognise that simply and frankly.
There's a fundamental humility in the simple admission that "we're all sinners". There's also a warning against judging anyone else, adopting a superior moral stance, or falling into spiritual smugness, since we're all in the same boat. What is never permissible among Christians is demanding penitence from other people while believing ourselves to be already beyond improvement.
Unfortunately this is the sort of attitude we often see now, for example, in the angry babble of single-issue campaigning and in the rage that often seems to accompany the whole fraught area of "relationships". Many people advance their own claims and interests in a spirit of strident self-assertion and self-justification, often refusing to admit their own faults or accept blame or apologise for anything. It's worth pointing out in passing that a great deal of current church activism is also marred by these deeply unspiritual attitudes.
But of course, whatever the context, when people clad themselves in self-righteousness they shut themselves off from the transforming action of God. If we're not willing to admit our own sinfulness, if we're not willing to foster an atmosphere where everyone is ready to excuse everyone else's faults and weaknesses, personal spiritual growth and loving relationships become impossible. We create the reign of hell instead: everyone walled-up in his or her own solitary pride.
There have always been individuals who are truly malicious, radically self-centred, but I suspect with most of us our sinfulness fails to reach epic dimensions. Spiritually and morally we exhibit weakness, pettiness and mediocrity rather than towering evil. We're easily deflected from the path of holiness. We fill our time with distractions and God remains a distant acquaintance.
I believe that the Bible – the Old Testament as well as the New - has the majority of common or garden sinners in mind when it uses the analogy of sickness that we encounter in the readings this Sunday.
In the second reading, a few short lines from Paul's second letter to the church community at Corinth, describe Jesus as the bringer of salvation and the fulfilment of centuries of promise and expectation. The gospel shows Jesus fulfilling this role during his public ministry and once again demonstrating the meaning of God's Kingdom through actions and signs.
God's Kingdom means reconciliation with God, a healing of the breach between God and man. For each person who turns to God it means, in Jesus' own phrase, that "your sins are forgiven".
That Jesus, a travelling preacher newly-arrived on the scene, should claim the authority to forgive people's sins appears to the religious leaders to be blasphemous, because it implies a sort of divine status. Only God can restore someone to friendship with God.
Christ's response relies partly on the fact that people at that time believed physical sickness was in some way the result of sinfulness: if someone was afflicted physically it was thought to be the fruit of personal wrongdoing, or the wrongdoing of parents, for example.
So to heal the man's physical paralysis by a simple effortless command symbolised Jesus' ability to heal spiritual sickness and restore the man to communion with God. The conclusion being forced on the scribes is that Jesus is - in some sense - identified with God and is the authentic bearer of salvation and divine forgiveness.
We don't have to share the superstitious belief that physical ailments are linked to personal sinfulness to appreciate the comparison of forgiveness with the removal of illness.
The author of the psalm this Sunday talks about God bringing us back from sickness to health and describes God's mercy as a healing of the soul. We can interpret the incident in the gospel passage, and reflect on our own relationship with God, in the same way: the encounter with Christ and his granting of forgiveness frees us, heals us and changes us. When we dismantle the walls of pride and brittle self-assertion and open ourselves to God's grace we're no longer sick. We can "get up and walk out in front of everyone".
This goes back to the view that the "sense of sin" associated with religious faith makes people feel miserable and depressed and unworthy. We should never lose sight of the fact that Christianity is a religion of redemption and forgiveness of sins, and Christians who have been liberated by a genuine encounter with God will always be more aware of a "sense of forgiveness" than a "sense of sin".
There should be two elements in the mentality of the Christian disciple: the humility that comes from knowing that we don't bring about our own redemption and the conviction that God wants nothing more than to free us from the grip of sinfulness, restore us to his likeness and strengthen us in holiness - which he always will do as long as we constantly turn to him and rely on him.
There's a saying that "the sinner is the heart of Christianity", which expresses trust in God's never-ending patience and corrects any tendency towards despair. But it's also true, as someone else said, that "the only tragedy is not to be a saint". Once we've genuinely accepted God's forgiveness we're on the road to transformation.
These sentiments compliment each other. They both contain essential truths about what is distinctive about the Christian way and I think the readings this Sunday draw out those truths for our reflection and encouragement.