“Who sinned? Who’s to blame for this man’s disability?” people ask today (Jn 9:1-41). It’s about as silly as asking whose sin caused the Queensland floods or the earthquakes in Christchurch and Japan, writes Anthony Fisher, Bishop of Parramatta, in his Lenten Reflection.
But Jesus is patient with them: there is a spiritual dimension to all this. There is a kind of spiritual blindness that needs healing as much as any physical handicap. All healing begins with a recognition of need.
To have lasting happiness in this world and the next there are three short phrases we need to say, and say often: I’m sorry … I forgive you … I love you.
Married people know that. Friends know that. Our nation has said sorry to its Indigenous people. Our Church has too, for its many failings, especially those of some pastors.
But why do we need to say sorry? Isn’t it enough to feel sorry?
Human beings give meaning to their world by naming things. Their first task in the Bible was to name the animals. Adam also named his wife ‘Eve’. Jesus named Simon ‘Peter’ and in turn Peter called him ‘the Christ, the Son of the living God’.
From the time we first learn to talk, we try to describe our experiences, thoughts and feelings. Naming gives us a measure of understanding and control.
Our parents also tell us the names of things to be wary of, like fire and traffic. Moses is told names of things to avoid: idolatry, impiety, violence, adultery, stealing, lying, lust, envy... (Ex 20:1-17) These names are the basis of our Ten Commandments.
Christ’s first public word was: Repent! (Mt 4:17) ‘Repent,’ he says to us still. Don’t just feel bad, but change. That begins with naming our sin out loud, with telling it like it is.
Owning up to sin, putting it out there, is an act of self-knowledge and responsibility, recognition not just of what we’ve done but what it’s done to us. It takes courage and humility, but it’s the beginning of healing. As St Catherine of Siena said, it’s only by weeding the garden of our souls that we make space for virtues to flower.
I forgive you...
Now’s the time to rediscover the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Some worry about being judged in the confessional. But confessors aren’t there to wag fingers. As a bishop Pope John Paul used to go to his local parish church and get in the confession queue with everyone else. The fact is: priests are sinners too. We all need Confession.
So people shouldn’t be embarrassed about telling their story in confession. Priests are humbled and inspired by penitents. They want to help them start afresh – with an encouraging word, some spiritual advice, a penance, best of all those breathtaking words: I absolve you from your sins. God’s response to those words is awesome: ‘What the Church forgives, I forgive’ (cf. Mt 18:18).
In this Sunday’s Gospel passage Jesus cures a blind man who gradually comes to see the world for what it is and Jesus for who He is. Ultimately he says, ‘Yes Lord, I believe’ and worships Him. There are many such stories of healing, recognition and growth in the Gospels.
Perhaps the best known are the Prodigal Son and the Woman Caught in Adultery. In each case Misery meets Mercy. In each the sinner is received back, joyfully, and given a new start. In each case there are resistant, resentful onlookers.
But why so public? Can’t we just leave these things as private matters between us and God? Jesus knows our self-delusions and rationalisations and how unlikely we are to own up to our failings unless we name them. He also knows our guilt and shame and how unlikely we are to accept forgiven unless it’s named to us. We need such physical, audible, sacramental signs of grace. Hence his Sacrament of Reconciliation.
I love you...
In another story Jesus told a weeping woman: ‘Your sins are forgiven’ (Lk 7:36-50). Those who overheard him murmured: ‘Who does he think he is, forgiving sins?’ The woman was the only one with an inkling of who He was. Jesus is the compassion of God, God saving, God forgiving.
Because she had been forgiven so much, this woman loved much; and because she had loved so much, much could be forgiven her. Now her most precious friendship of all – with God – was restored and she could grow in holiness.
That’s why people sometimes cry when they are forgiven: because they know they are alive and free... to go and sin no more... to live and love well again... to forgive others in turn. Absolution expands our hearts. It enables us to love bigger and better, to grow spiritually and emotionally. It overflows in thanksgiving.
At last we can love back the One who loved us to death – his death – for our forgiveness.
After the cross of repentance comes new life, new love. The ten words name not only past wrongs but future goals: reverence for God, life, persons, family, creation, relationships. It’s a pattern for the good life, sometimes hard, but ultimately the most fulfilling.
Jesus’ first gift to the Church at Easter was the power to forgive sins (Jn 20:22-3). It’s a power closely connected to that rising from the dead to which we look in Lent. That’s why Catholics go to Confession around this time: to hear Jesus say: ‘You are forgiven: go in peace and sin no more.’
Next he says, ‘Come celebrate with me at the table of the Lord.’ Only after Confession and absolution of any serious sin can we approach Holy Communion. Only then are we ready for the Wedding Feast of God’s kingdom. ‘Let’s party,’ says our Easter Lord to the sinner raised from the tomb of sin. There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous. I’m sorry... I forgive you... I love you...