Thursday, April 23, 2009

Speaking of Sin . . .

In a comment on yesterday's blog, Rory Cooney made an insightful comment about sin and I'd like to address the issues he raises. Rory said this: "This means, I think, that we have to actually talk about what constitutes "sin," a topic that it seems like preachers don't want to touch lest they be deemed politically motivated. We're only likely to hear about generalized sins and particularly about abortion, which means (generally) that we haven't progressed much since the Genesis view of sin as women's work."

I agree with Rory's assessment. I think that many preachers in the past focused a little too heavily on sin. I remember going to parish missions when I was a kid at St. Charles Church in Woburn, Massachusetts, pictured here. I remember the focus being almost exclusively on sin. I left those mission sessions scared to death. I was sure that I was going straight to hell. With the advent of the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, and the opening up of the scriptures, preachers began—for the most part—to shy away from talking about sin. I guess I have fallen into the pattern of expecting homilies to uplift me, rather than challenge me. That is why Paul Turner's comment, posted on yesterday's blog, was a real eye-opener for me.
One of the members of the Christian Initiation Seminar of the North American Academy of Liturgy, an Episcopal priest, shared a story with us. It goes something like this:
In his parish, during the first year of the implementation of the catechumenate (process by which adults prepare for and are baptized), they struggled with how to make a connection between what was happening in the scrutinies (pre-baptismal rites of self-searching and repentance) and what would happen at baptism. To prepare for the scrutinies with their one catechumen—a middle-aged man—they asked him a series of questions. They asked him to name the things in his life that prevented him from fully embracing the Christian way of life. During the celebrations of the scrutinies, the parish named these sins and all prayed that this catechumen (and the entire parish) would be freed from these sins. Then it came time for baptism at the Easter Vigil. Just before the man was to renounce sin and make the profession of faith prior to the baptism, two people appeared from a side area, carrying two poles with a banner stretched between the two poles. On the paper banner were written the sins that the man had named during his scrutiny preparation, things like "my long-held grudge against my brother," "my harmful addictions," "my tendencies toward racism and prejudice," among others. Right before the man was asked to renounce sin, the pastor asked him to look intently at these sins. The pastor said that when the man renounced Satan and all his works, and all his empty promises, the things listed on that banner were precisely these works of Satan, these very empty promises. The pastor then told the man that if he were ready to renounce sin, "then approach the banner and tear it apart." This is precisely what the man did. He reached up, grabbed the sins, tore them into pieces and stomped on them. Only then, it seems, did his renunciation of sin hit home. 
I am not advocating this practice in our parishes. What I am advocating is allowing Lent to do what Lent is intended to do: give us the opportunity to prepare for our annual renewal of the baptismal renunciation of sin and the profession of faith. Preaching needs to lead us into ways of recognizing those attitudes and behaviors that fly in the face of the fact that we are baptized; that we have indeed "put on Christ." Once we are led to an honest recognition of our own sins, our ritual renunciation of sin will also hit home for us. I've done some extensive work with the scrutinies. Here's a snippet of my "Three Litanies for the Scrutinies." The scrutinies can help the entire community name the sins that ensnare us. Only then can we know the power that Christ's death and resurrection hold to destroy sin. 
I remember Fr. Jim Dunning, the founder of the North American Forum on the Catechumenate sharing his response to a man who asked Jim if he had been saved. Jim responded, "Yes, I've been saved. Again, and again, and again, and again, and again!" How good is our God to call us back time and time again. For this, folks, we gotta sing and we gotta pray. Here is a portion of Steve Janco's "Concertato on Jesus Christ Is Risen Today." Enjoy.

1 comment:

Joe said...

I have recently been reflecting upon the meaning of sin. Growing up, I always viewed it through a legalistic lens. However, of late, I have developed the following working definition:

"One's refusal to accept his or her 'personhood' as it has been given to them by God."

As a result, sin is really, at its core, ingratitude. Thomas Merton famously observed, "For me, to be a saint means to be myself."

God has a unique dream for each and every one of us. Within the community of believers, we strive to discover what it is!

"In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed." (Psalms 139:16)