“Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” In these few words, John the Baptist sums up the identity and the mission of Jesus Christ. Identity: He is God’s Lamb, his innocent Son. Mission: to take away the sin of the world. If there is no sin, of course, if we do not admit to sin, if we consider sin an obsolete notion of an outdated religion called Christianity, used only to dominate us, then there is no need for the Lamb of God or his mission. No sin, no need for God. Maybe even, no God at all.
In the West, the word sin has been carefully cut out of our enlightened vocabulary because it insults our self-proclaimed secular independence and dignity. It has largely been replaced by the notion of the violation of human rights. Right and wrong now refer mainly to social justice/injustice. We are, and often rightly, outraged at the violation of human rights, at corruption and political expediency. We correctly complain about unjust employment practices, unjust wages, inhuman housing conditions, and all the rest. In the Church herself we absolutely must denounce abuse of any kind. However, by often borrowing from the mentality around us in society, we then go on to complain that the Church has to “get with it”, to move “into the twenty first century.” Here is where our thinking becomes more questionable since, while unimportant things can and must surely change, some expect the Church to conform to society on more fundamental matters. Some expect the Church to abjure “outdated doctrines” of faith. The danger here is clear. We would risk obscuring the mission of Christ and Christ himself. But his mission must continue in and through the Church, welcome or unwelcome, in season and out of season. And that mission is to take away the sins of the world, not to conform to it.
So, while sensitivity to social justice can only be good, we can quickly become finger-pointers. John the Baptist pointed out the Lamb of God; a certain way of Western thinking sets itself up to point out the sins in others that the Lamb should take away. But, like charity, sin begins at home, that is in one’s own heart. The sins of society, the sin of the world, is but the result of the sins of individual people which get worse and more destructive when they interact with the sins of others. For sins are not added to one another; no, they multiply one another. And they do that within the heart of each one before they do it socially. Once one form of sin takes root, sooner or later others will follow. When you enter the world of sin by one door, say pride, it will not be long before that whole world of sin wants to claim you for itself in other sins such as hatred, lust or greed. Moreover, once in that world, you will be influenced by everyone else in it and, unless you have the strength to resist and to repent and to come out of it, you will find that you too start influencing others to sin.
These are hard and unpleasant truths, and the Devil himself does not want them talked about in order to leave people with anaesthetized consciences. But I don’t want you to have sleeping or dead consciences. I want your conscience to be alive and sensitive to God, to the truth, to true goodness, to awareness of right and wrong, good and evil, sin and grace. The Devil inspires sophistries such as “no-one believes in sin any more”, “I’m just doing what everyone else is doing”, “I’m an adult, so I will decide for myself”, “I’m doing no-one any harm”, and so on. The Devil brought sin into the world by seduction, and he still tries to seduce us not only into sin but also, and more importantly, into believing that there is no sin, or else that it is harmless. After all, who knows my secret sins? No-one can see into my soul. No-one can judge me. And because we do not perceive any immediate negative effect of our sin, because the world does not immediately come crashing down around us, we therefore disbelieve that there is any sin at all; we buy into the Devil’s story hook, line and sinker. We abolish the word sin because we want to abolish the bizarre idea that we might be sinners. We lack the wisdom to realise that sin is a rot, a voracious cancer, which starts imperceptibly and even pleasantly [for we never sin unless it is pleasing] but which, for all its sweet talk, inevitably wreaks havoc in the soul, to Satan’s delight.
It says frequently in the Scriptures that someone will eventually have to work out in his own person the effects of his sin. Sin inevitably brings suffering, although the suffering of any person is not always the result of his own sin. An innocent child can suffer grievously at the hands of sinful parents, but the parents, too, one day will have to work out under their own skin, in their own souls, the suffering which their sin has caused to them themselves. The even more tragic thing is not only that their child has suffered but that, as the child grows up, it may end up imitating the sin of its parents. We learn not solely nor principally through books, but through the experience and example around us. The original sin of our first parents has alas become our very own.
And that our sins, even the most private ones, have an impact well beyond our own person is not so difficult to believe. None of us is privy to secret arms or drug deals between interested parties, but we do see all too clearly the death and destruction these bring about. If I can pass to you a virus by sneezing, I can pass to you a temptation by sinning. The human being is by definition interactive at every level. True, we do not see one another’s thoughts or souls, but, whether seen or not, what matters is the actual reality we carry in our minds and souls when we relate to one another, be that reality good or evil. Just because no one sees our sin does not mean it is not there or that it is not influencing the way we are dealing with others. It is folly to believe we can split off or blot out our sins, or pretend they’re not there, merely by putting on a nice face and following etiquette. Sin affects who we are and, whether known or unknown, it thus always affects how we are with others.
And anyway, Christ does see all our sins, in their individual forms, in their complexity within the individual and in the web of exponential damage they cause between persons in a family and beyond, even to the international level. Sin creates its own worldwide web; it was the first one. But Christ does not just see all this and spectate. He has come to take it away, to cleave the web of sin. He has come to destroy it through the innocence of his holiness. Only He can do this; only He has ever claimed to do this. So, any sin you commit can only be destroyed by exposing it to the power of the Lamb of God. And here enters the very important question: how? How do you expose your sin to the power of the Lamb? And what is that power?
That power is the Holy Spirit. As the Baptist says, the Lamb will baptise you, that is cleanse or bathe you, in the Holy Spirit. Sin divides us from God and divides us within ourselves and among ourselves. The Holy Spirit is the One who reunites, who heals, restores integrity within and among us, who enables our eyes and hearts once more to gaze honestly and sincerely upon God and neighbour, to be invaded by the love of God, to be ennobled in the holiness of God. The Spirit is the power of the Lamb unleashed as he died and roared from the Cross: “It is consummated”, giving up His Spirit for us. And what of the how? The baptism of the Spirit is given to us through the sacraments, through simple material signs chosen and imbued by Christ with His Spirit. By baptism we are cleansed of original and personal sin. If we sin after baptism, we are cleansed by the Eucharist provided our sins are not mortal, that is, not such as to empty our being of God’s presence. But we must be honest about what our sins are and whether or not they are mortal. For if we receive the Eucharist in mortal sin we only compound our sin and desecrate Christ himself. What I am saying is simply the truth, the truth that sets free from error and the blindness of presumption. If our sins are mortal, they can only be exposed to the power of the Holy Spirit in the sacrament of confession. It’s the only way. Only this sacrament guarantees their absolution. And Christ wants us, commands us, to receive this sacrament, to receive a new baptism in the Holy Spirit if we are sure that we are in mortal sin. Even if we are unsure as to whether or not our sin is mortal, we should confess it, otherwise we receive the Eucharist in bad faith. By confession Christ desires only to give new life to us, to restore our hearts to divine love, to rescue us from darkness and to restore hope. And even if we have not committed mortal sin, confession provides an immense boost to our spiritual lives.
I will return to this sacrament in preaching once I finish the series of homilies I have started on the Mass. But I wanted today, given today’s Gospel, to encourage you, to implore you in Christ’s name, as your priest, as your parish priest, not to avoid or dismiss the sacrament of confession. In it, Christ the Redeemer, the Doctor and the Judge of your souls opens his heart to you. Come, and open yours to Him. Confession is like an anticipation of your judgment on the day of your death. On that day God might gently chide you: “Why did you wait for judgment until I took you to myself, and not come to me for merciful judgment when I waited on you in my priests? Why did you make excuses and argue away or dismiss in pride the need to receive my Spirit, my healing in this sacrament? Think of all the love and gifts of grace you could have received and shared with others. But you always said, ‘maybe another time.’ Why did you keep the Lamb of God waiting? Why delay Him taking away your sins? Why spurn my love?”