This Friday is the opening of the movie: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. I am looking forward to seeing it with the fourth graders of our parish school. This homily is not a promotion for the movie, but I mention it because of something which happened in the lead-up to its release. I bring it up because it will help us understand what is meant the “forgiveness of sin” which John speaks about in today’s Gospel.
The New York Times did an article about C.S. Lewis (author of the Chronicles of Narnia) which was quite critical of the man. Rather than focusing on Lewis’ ideas and stories, the reporter chose to pass on rumors regarding his personal life. That was to be expected considering the state of journalism today. What bothered me more than article, however, was the way some C.S. Lewis’ fans tried to defend him. Their attempts to defend Lewis were like “friendly fire.” Although they had good intentions, their lack of attentiveness caused them to damage their own side, rather that hitting the real target.
The C.S. Lewis defenders undercut the Christian message in two fundamental ways. First, they asserted that even if the rumors are really true, they do not matter because they described things which happened when Lewis was a young man, before his conversion to Christianity. Lewis himself explicitly rejects this line of defense. In one of his books (Problem of Pain) he points out: “We have a strange illusion that mere time cancels sin. But mere time does nothing either to the fact or to the guilt of a sin.” That a sin took place a long time ago does not change the reality of the misdeed, although it might make it easier for a person to acknowledge it and to repent. Unfortunately the passage of time often has the opposite effect. It can make a person less likely to recognize the damage. “Well, I was young and foolish then. Just sowing a few wild oats, you know.” The defenders of C.S. Lewis may unwittingly encourage that cavalier approach to sin.
The bigger problem was in the defenders’ second line of defense. Some of them simply asserted that the sins mentioned were in themselves no big deal. “So what?” They asked, “We all make mistakes. We are all weak.” Lewis would have reacted strongly to this implicit denial of sin. Anyone who has read his books knows that the last thing you can accuse him of is a casual attitude toward sin. In fact, one of his great contributions is unmasking sin for what it is. He knew that before people could receive the Good News of forgiveness, they had to know what sin actually is. The diagnosis comes before the cure.
Back in John the Baptist’s day, people – pagans, as well as Jews – knew that they had violated divine laws. Today people are not so sure that right and wrong exist or that human beings are even responsible for their actions.* “Sin” is like a foreign word to people of our culture. It has no meaning beyond “something that some people think is bad.” It needs to be retranslated. C.S. Lewis tried to do that. In one of his writings (Letters to Malcolm) he said: “Every sin is the distortion of an energy breathed into us...” By even the smallest sin “we poison the wine as He decants it into us; murder a melody He would play with us as the instrument...Hence all sin, whatever else it is, is sacrilege.”
C.S. Lewis did not write much about sensational sins like murder or adultery or drunkenness. Rather he concentrated on more everyday failings such as tale bearing, ill temper, sloth and cowardice. He shows how seemingly small matters can have great consequences, separating a person from other human beings and ultimately God himself.
Lewis wrote as a man painfully aware of his own past sins and his present sinfulness. After his conversion, it took him a few years to muster the courage to make an auricular confession to an Anglican priest. About his first confession, he wrote (on October 24, 1940), “It was the hardest decision I have ever made.” From that time on he made regular confession to a priest.
He of course was aware of the danger of scrupulosity. He corresponded with a lady who was something of a hypochondriac, spiritually as well as physically. Warning her against anxiety about what a lost soul she is, he told her to just get down to brass tacks: What have you actually done? Just the facts, please. Take those things a wise priest – and listen to what he has to say.** Then, be at peace, knowing that God forgives even your most miserable sins.
That was the attitude of St. John the Baptist when people came to him in the desert. He told them to turn away from their misdeeds and they would be forgiven. Before washing them in the Jordan, the people “acknowledged their sins.” In doing so they prepared themselves for one mightier than John who would give them the definitive baptism – in the Holy Spirit. This Advent we also desire to turn from sin and receive the Savior who John proclaimed.
*Pope John Paul II tackled this issue in Veritatis Splendor, arguably his most important encyclical. He argues that our modern culture has fallen into two errors regarding human freedom: The first is to deny we are free, that is, responsible for our actions. The second is to say that we are so free we can change the moral law any way we wish. John Paul the Great obviously expressed it better than I can. If you read only one papal document, I recommend Veritatis Splendor. Here is a quote worth meditating on:
Certain currents of modern thought have gone so far as to exalt freedom to such an extent that it becomes an absolute, which would then be the source of values. This is the direction taken by doctrines which have lost the sense of the transcendent or which are explicitly atheist. The individual conscience is accorded the status of a supreme tribunal of moral judgment which hands down categorical and infallible decisions about good and evil...
Side by side with its exaltation of freedom, yet oddly in contrast with it, modern culture radically questions the very existence of this freedom. A number of disciplines, grouped under the name of the "behavioural sciences", have rightly drawn attention to the many kinds of psychological and social conditioning which influence the exercise of human freedom. Knowledge of these conditionings and the study they have received represent important achievements which have found application in various areas, for example in pedagogy or the administration of justice. But some people, going beyond the conclusions which can be legitimately drawn from these observations, have come to question or even deny the very reality of human freedom.
**And if you can't find one, try me - or someone like me. We may not have tons of sage advice, but we will at least listen and give absolution with a penance - and perhaps help you get your focus back on God. Here is some sounda advice from C.S. Lewis:
1. Remember what St. John says “If our heart condemns us, God is strong than our heart.” The feeling of being, or not being forgiven and love, is not what matters. One must come down to brass tacks. If there is a particular sin on your conscience, repent and confess it. If there isn’t, tell the despondent devil not to be silly. You can’t help hearing this voice (the odious inner radio) but you must treat it merely like a buzzing in your ears or any other irrational nuisance.
2. Remember the story in the Imitation, how Christ on the crucifix suddenly spoke to the monk who was son anxious about his salvation and said, “If you know that all was well, what would you, today, do or stop doing?” When you have found the answer, do it or stop doing it. You see, one must always get back to the practical and definite. What the devil loves is that vague cloud of unspecified guilt feeling or unspecified virtue by which he lures us into despair or presumption. “Detail, please?” is the answer.
3. The sense of dereliction cannot be a bad symptom for Our Lord Himself experienced it in its depth – “Why hast thou forsaken me?” (Letters to an American Lady, July 21, 1958 letter)
From Archives (Second Sunday of Advent, Year B):
Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C
Audio Files of Homilies (Simple Catholicism Blog)
Are these homilies a help to you? Please consider making a donation to St. Mary of the Valley Parish.
Fr. Brad's Homilies (well worth listening)
Bulletin (Jesus' Teaching on Homosexuality and Immigration)
Tenth Anniversary of Death of Melvin Bloom Pictures from Anniversary Lunch
from Daily Mail (London) Review of The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
Nuns Beaten in China
Mark Shea on responses to *the* document (how media set up false dichotomies)
Statement of Bishop Skylstad on the Instruction:
Since news of this document was first discussed in the media, the question has been asked whether a homosexually-inclined man can be a good priest. The answer lies in the lives of those men who, with God’s grace, have truly been dedicated priests, seeking each day not to be served but to serve their people, faithfully representing in word and example the teaching of the Church in its fullness, including God’s revelation that sexual expression is intended only to take place between a husband and a wife in a loving, faithful, and life-giving marriage.
When Jesus told his apostles how difficult it would be “for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven,” they responded with amazement. Jesus’ reply reminds us of the power of God’s grace: “For human beings this is impossible, but for God all things are possible.” (Cf. Matt. 19.23-26).
Cardinal Arinze: Ask the Children
Tom Cruise buys sonogram machine
Fr. Richard John Neuhaus on Senator McCain’s proposal for banning all forms of “cruel, inhuman, or degrading” treatment of prisoners (follows "this is not a parody")
Born Alive After Abortion
Crowds Flock to View Bloody Tears of Statue (The most viewed image on Yahoo images)
Interview with Katelyn Sills
What is wrong with this AP headline: Pope Benedict Ushers in Christmas Season?
Peggy Noonan on John Paul II
Parish Picture Album
Bulletin (St. Mary's Parish)
Parish Picture Album
MBC - Mary Bloom Center, Puno, Peru