A number of years ago, a local pastor, a classmate of mine, asked me to give a Lenten talk at his parish on the topic of sin. In introducing me to the congregation, the priest explained that he had asked me to speak on sin because I was such an expert on the subject! It's a claim I can't deny.
But in truth, we're all experts on sin. Sin is all around us; we can't avoid it. We live in sin and sin in us. "Sin is present in human history," The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains. "Any attempt to ignore it or to give this dark reality other names would be futile." (#386)
We experience the reality of sin in several different ways.
First, we are tainted by Original Sin, the sin we inherit as children of Adam and Eve. Just as we inherit physical traits from our parents, so too we inherit spiritual attributes and flaws. As St. Paul explains, "through one person sin entered the world, and through sin, death, and thus death came to all ... through the disobedience of one person the many were made sinners." (Rom 5:12, 19)
Secondly, we are responsible to some degree for the social and communal sin that corrupts our world today. Abortion, euthanasia, pornography, secularism, materialism, poverty, violence and war - these and many other sins are imbedded in contemporary society and culture, and even if we're not directly and personally involved, we allow them to exist without much objection, don't we?
Finally, there are the personal sins, large and small, that we constantly struggle with in our daily lives anger, jealousy, pride, prejudice, impurity, uncharitableness, to name a few. These are the moral flaws that bedevil our lives, drag us down, and keep us from making the spiritual progress we seek.
Despite the overwhelming evidence of the existence and consequences of sin, it has become commonplace to rationalize or underestimate its reality in the world. Author Alan Wolfe, a self-described Evangelical Protestant, in his outstanding book, The Transformation of American Religion, laments the disappearance of sin from public perception:
Somehow, I am not pleased with this retreat from sin, for the ease with
which American religious believers adopt nonjudgmental language and
a psychological understanding of wrongdoing that is detrimental to anyone,
religious or not, who believes that individuals should judge their actions
against the highest possible ideals of human contact. One need not be a
Calvinist preoccupied with the dark side of human nature to recognize that
covenants exist and that we break them only at a great cost to ourselves
and to others with whom we share our society.
Without a doubt sin is deceptive, sneaky and relentless. It takes hold of your life very gradually.
Sin is like gaining weight. It doesn't happen instantaneously, but one ounce, one pound at a time. Before you know it, though, your bathroom scale has run out of numbers.
Sin is like weeds in a garden. They don't grow up overnight, but slowly, almost imperceptibly. If you don't regularly pluck the weeds, they take over, choking the life around them.
Sin is like a ship sailing from port. It doesn't disappear over the horizon immediately, but slowly, one foot, one yard, one mile at a time until completely disappearing from sight.
Question: Are you as close to God as you want to be? Are you as close to God as you used to be? If not, who moved? (A hint: it's not God!)
Never underestimate the reality and danger of sin. If you ignore it or take it lightly, it can cause enormous harm to you and others. It can send you to hell and separate you from God forever.
In short, that's why we need Lent: to do battle with sin. The Temptation of Christ in the desert is the model for our Lenten struggle. And the traditional disciplines of Lent - prayer, fasting and almsgiving - are our weapons of choice.
Our additional time at prayer, personal and liturgical, exposes us to the life-giving Spirit of God.
The ascetical works of fasting and abstinence provide the discipline that strengthens us, helping us overcome our addiction to the passing fancies of this world.
And our commitment to good works opens our hearts to our brothers and sisters, increasing our awareness of their needs, building the noble virtue of Christ-like compassion.
You see, Lent is a total package. We have a goal, which as St. Paul writes is to "be reconciled to God." (II Cor 5:20) We have an obstacle to overcome - the dangerous reality of sin in our lives. And in prayer, mortification and good works, we have the spiritual tools we need to be successful.
We need Lent to vanquish sin. At the end of this Lenten Season, we probably won't be perfect, but if we approach the season seriously, we can be a little bit better on Easter than we were on Ash Wednesday.
(This column originally appeared in The Providence Visitor)