Summary: The problems of our life are 1% external; 99% internal. Lent is a time for repentance, avoiding evil and doing good.

Fifth Sunday in Course

10 February 2013

“I am a sinful man”

The liturgical calendar used with the Extraordinary form of the Mass calls this Sunday “Quinquagesima.” The meaning from the Latin is “the fifty days.” It’s about fifty days until Easter. Today the Word of God points like an arrow toward the middle of this week, when our churches–even the Protestant ones–will be full of human beings who–at least for one day in the year–allow themselves to fall on their knees before Jesus and admit “I am a sinful man.”

The virtue of humility is not much appreciated these days. Indeed, throughout history it has been one of those that, with perfect honesty, even the Greek Diogenes would find hard to uncover. If we look around in the entertainment world, we find degenerates who are more celebrated for their perversity than for their acting talent, men and women who parade their depravity as if it were some kind of thing to applaud. People who reveal their enslavement to one or the other sexual sin on some talk show or awards program are praised for their so-called courage, when the real courage is in the handful of men and women in Hollywood who encourage them to embrace purity, modesty and chaste behavior. The political world is full of those who bow before the false god of political correctness and raise their fist at the God of perfect love and perfect justice. They have corrupted the laws to such an extent that bishops are now looking forward to prison time for refusing to corrupt our religious and service institutions with the poisons of contraception and the injustice of abortion and sterilization. How can these politicians be proud of what they have done to our nation? How can one be proud of sinning, and encouraging others to sin?

The problem with being sensitive to the evils in our society is that it tempts us to think that evil is something outside our own persons. Isaiah, Paul and Peter didn’t make that mistake. Isaiah knew he was among a people of unclean lips and hearts, but he first became aware of his own uncleanness, his own sin. Paul counted himself an apostle, sent to bring people knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of sin–his and theirs. Peter–ah, what a scene that must have been–Peter, the great fisherman of Galilee, the proud man of Galilee, finally meets his fishing superior, realizes his own weakness and guilt, and falls on His knees before the One who made the fish and the lake and the fisherman. “Depart from me, Master, for I am a sinful man.” For the OT attitude toward the divine was that divinity was to be fled, because to be in the presence of the divine manifestation was to risk instant death.

In time, however, the Church realized that it is the eternal presence of Jesus Christ that liberates us from our real problems. Imagine that I give you a scrap of paper and a pencil. In fact, you might try this exercise at home. Take a piece of paper and write on it the one thing that you need more than anything else in the world. You might write “less debt” or “more cash.” Maybe a bigger house or a smaller house payment, a new car, a quieter neighbor, a better school for your kids. Perhaps, on a more personal note, it’s a new friend, or a more listening spouse. The temptation is to ask for something outside yourself to improve, and then you will be happier.

But when I, like Peter, look back at my life, I can see so many times when I wanted some external change to improve my situation, or my family’s situation, and even prayed to God for that change, and the opposite happened. The externals stayed the same, and I had to learn to cope with the status quo ante. Then, perhaps years later, I discovered that the change I yearned for would have been a catastrophe for my family. There was a particularly hostile fellow in top management at my insurance company who vowed that I would never be a general agent in that company. He kept me from at least two promotions. When that company was swallowed up by another one, all the men and women who were promoted ahead of me found themselves in strange cities, looking for a job. It’s so often true. Changing externals does not lead to happiness.

The problem with most human lives, on the contrary, is inside us. God’s will is always aimed at our good. Sin keeps us from doing God’s will. So sin keeps us from experiencing the good. On Wednesday, I will make the sign of the cross perhaps five hundred times on folks’ foreheads, and with a few words encourage them to turn from sin and accept the Gospel of Christ. The first step is to accept the grace to turn from sin. I know, because I have been there, that standing in line for the sacrament of reconciliation feels a lot like a hot charcoal heading for your lips. But the sacrament is good for me, good for all of us sinners. Make a good confession and receive absolution, at least once this Lent. Eliminate those occasions of sin in your life, the things that turn you from God’s will. Shred all the Playboy magazines in your garage or library. Disconnect the TV cable networks that just show sex and violence and unbridled consumerism. Stay away from your gossipy neighbors–or, better, help them to see how harmful gossip is for everyone. File an honest tax return.

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