The Examined Self Before God

Monday the Second Week of Lent: Daniel 9:4b-10, Luke 6:36-38.

Today’s readings call us to reflect on our sins. In the Book of Daniel, we are shown the model of a contrite heart for past sins. In the gospel of St. Luke, Jesus instructs us on how to avoid sins in the future. Now for many of us, thinking about sins is not the most captivating aspect of our religion (low attendance at Confession can attest to that), but even the most casual reading of the Bible shows us how essential self-examination is.

Perhaps we can better embrace the spirit of today’s readings if we bring to mind yesterday’s glorious Transfiguration reading from Matthew. When I put myself in the sandals of Peter, James, and John and imagine witnessing the divine light shining from the face of our Lord, followed by the bright cloud of the Father instructing me to listen to Him, I can also see myself falling prostrate on the ground. The purifying and incomprehensible divine light casts a shadow over my soul that “darkens and empties and annihilates it in its particular apprehensions and affections concerning both earthly and heavenly things,” in the words of St. John of the Cross (see the end of yesterday’s reflection for more context here). When my soul in its imperfect state encounters the divine light, I cannot help but notice its blemishes, like a familiar shirt that seems fine until I wear it to a nice event in the sunshine where its stains and frayed seams jump out in their obviousness.

How do we feel about the grubby shirt that is our soul? A bit embarrassed? That’s OK – let’s take heart from one of today’s patron saints, St. Catherine of Bologna (1413-1463): “It means little to wear a worn habit and walk with bowed head; to be truly humble one has to know how to bear humiliation. It is the touchstone of Christian discipleship.” Humiliation, embarrassment: both of these accept a public acknowledgment of a sin or mistake. It shouldn’t be too difficult for us to acknowledge our sins before God, in the privacy of our relationship with Him.

The Adoration of the Golden Calf (L’Adoration du veau d’or), 1633-1634, Nicolas Poussin | Wikimedia Commons.

Humiliation is something the Jews knew well at the time the Book of Daniel was written (~165 BC). During this period, Antiochus IV Epiphanes was the Greek ruler over Israel who brutally put down the revolt recorded in the Book of Maccabees. “He ordered his soldiers to cut down without mercy those whom they met and to slay those who took refuge in their houses. There was a massacre of young and old, a killing of women and children, a slaughter of virgins and infants. In the space of three days, eighty thousand were lost, forty thousand meeting a violent death, and the same number being sold into slavery” (2 Maccabees 5:11–14). Then he tried to force the remaining Jews to worship Zeus on pain of death.

Rather than bemoan their conquered and downtrodden state, the Book of Daniel acknowledges the humiliation and takes spiritual responsibility: “O LORD, we are shamefaced, like our kings, our princes, and our fathers, for having sinned against you.” The message is not all shame and doom, however. God’s covenant with his people still stands and hope is always there: “But yours, O Lord, our God, are compassion and forgiveness!” The Book of Daniel is an apocalyptic writing and focuses on the coming day of the Lord and the ultimate vindication of the chosen people. (The writer of Daniel uses the famous phrase “Son of Man” for the messiah — one that Jesus will use in reference to himself throughout his ministry.) 

What can we learn from this long passage acknowledging sins? We aren’t Israelites who broke their covenant by worshipping idols and ignoring God’s commandments. Or are we more like them than we think? Our idols may not be golden calves, and our worship of them may not include burnt offerings, but let’s consider our contemporary lives. American culture is known for a few things: nearly limitless choice (for food, for clothing, for entertainment, for jobs, for housing, etc.) and unconstrained appetite (for those same things). We don’t think twice about ordering something we don’t need from Amazon if the price seems good or buying that little impulse purchase right next to the cash register at the store. Our golden calf is ourselves and our offerings are conspicuous consumption. This has been true for a long time. Heck, Thorstein Veblen writes in the Theory of the Leisure Class in 1899 that “The quasi-peaceable gentleman of leisure, then, not only consumes of the staff of life beyond the minimum required for subsistence and physical efficiency, but his consumption also undergoes a specialization as regards the quality of the goods consumed. He consumes freely and of the best, in food, drink, narcotics, shelter, services, ornaments, apparel, weapons and accoutrements, amusements, amulets, and idols or divinities” (Chap 4: “Conspicuous Consumption, p.73).

All of this is to say that we live in a society rooted in self, not in God. We participate in it in ways great and small. Too often we rationalize away the Word of God and try to fit it within our normal cycle of making money, saving money, spending money, getting things for ourselves, getting things for our mini-me (kids), etc. Granted, living in contemporary society and simultaneously living out the New Covenant is not easy apart from becoming a monk, but nonetheless we’re all called to be saints. Plus. that’s kind-of the point of Christianity. It was seriously hard (on pain of death) before it was sanctioned by Constantine and being Christian became synchronous with the power of the state. This sent us down an arguably more difficult path of retaining our focus on a world beyond this one when the current world seemed to be achieving all we wanted. I digress.

Acknowledging sins: is it worthwhile or does the reading from Daniel seem to take it a little too far? Let’s take some wisdom from one of our great Church Fathers, St. John Chrysostom who writes: “If we have been neglectful to the present moment, let us proceed immediately to the work of destroying sin through confession and tears. … Unless you tell the magnitude of your debt, you do not experience the abundance of grace” (Homilies on Lazarus (388 AD), 4.4). Sounds like it’s worth it.

Chrysostom’s comment about confession and tears (i.e., contrition) “destroying sin” is echoed by several other Church Fathers. Tertullian writes his treatise Repentance in 203 AD and makes clear this connection: “of confession is repentance born, and by repentance is God appeased. … by its own pronouncement against the sinner, [confession may] stand in place of God’s indignation … In so far as you do not spare yourself, the more, believe me, will God spare you!” This affirms that God wants us to convert to Him wholly, and the more work we do in confessing sins and purifying our own souls, the less God will have to do later (perhaps in Purgatory?).

So here we get to the reason we’re confessing sins to God. Tertullian and Chrysostom are doing some arithmetic: if we have a bank of sins, we can confess and be contrite while here on earth to destroy some or most (maybe even all?) of this bank of sins … while of course trying not to commit more of them. Otherwise, we meet God after this life with a big bank of sins that He must deal with, not something we want. To use our earlier analogy, will we present ourselves to God in a grubby, stained shirt or will we scrub and iron that shirt the best we can before we meet Him?

Saint Francis in Ecstasy (1600s), Italian (Neapolitan) School | Creative Commons, courtesy Guernsey Museum & Art Gallery/ArtUK.

The reasoning presented by Tertullian and Chrysostom we might call “negative reasoning” in that we are encouraged to do something to avoid something bad (God’s reaction to our huge bank of sins). Christ presents us with “positive reasoning” in today’s gospel reading. While he is referring to avoiding future sins instead of confessing and repenting for past sins, his reasoning applies to both.

Christ’s message is that we are active participants in our own salvation in how we respond to God’s call and take on God’s commandments. He says, “Stop condemning and you will not be condemned. Forgive and you will be forgiven. Give and gifts will be given to you.” In other words, live by God’s law and you will continue to live with God for eternity; carry divine love in your heart as you live, work, and act with other people, and divine love will be given to you for eternity.

This reciprocation is a refrain that Jesus repeats throughout his ministry. The Lord’s Prayer uses nearly the same formulation: “forgive us our trespasses, as [you see us forgiving others].” How extraordinary — we seem to be hearing that we, in effect, have the power to save ourselves because God will mirror whatever we do. But let’s avoid this simplification of the message (and heresy) and dig a little deeper. 

Jesus wants us to so fully embrace the divine life offered to us that we transcend the letter of the law to inhabit the spirit of the law. The readings last week showed us several times how Jesus exhorts us to surpass the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees and to “be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect” (see The Difficult New Covenant of Love). What changed from the time of Daniel in the old covenant is that Jesus offers humanity a real taste of the Kingdom here on earth and is the true gateway to the eternal Kingdom. That’s why we must transcend the letter of the law, which ruled the Israelite understanding of God’s relationship, and more fully let the Spirit inhabit us. Since we now have the liturgy that gives us true communion with God, we have the opportunity to carry our godliness into every aspect of our lives in a way that was never available before Christ. It is this same generosity of Christ that speaks today when he says that an “overflowing measure” will be measured out to us if we live in the New Covenant. This new Way (earliest Christians referred to themselves as followers “of the Way” cf. Acts 9:1-2) requires more than the old covenants.

To inhabit the spirit of the law (and let the Spirit inhabit us), we must not carry the spirit of condemnation and judgement, we must forgive and give. Again, the big difference is that we are sanctified by the Spirit in the liturgy and sacraments; our sanctified lives puts us in intimate communion with God. That means that when we sin we turn our backs on God, the God dwelling within us who we just sullied with sin. We must both confess/repent for past sins and keep from future sins because we are already “on the Way” to union with God. We already have the Spirit dwelling within us and acting in our lives. Our union with God’s will by the way we act confirms our covenant with Him and therein his promise to reciprocate in the life to come.

To live a fully human life means to be elevated and transformed by God, to strive for perfection in spirit and action as we unite ourselves with Him. The ultimate reason for Christians to live like this is not a selfish guarantee of eternal life for that person we think we are (as we worship at the altar of self), but because we want to be with Him, to leave these limited “selves” and join the heavenly host. That’s exactly the “overflowing measure” promised to us.

2 Comments

  1. Suzanne Mozdy

    Thank you for the connections between the reading and Gospel today and also tying in the readings from previous days. It is a great woven story you are unraveling. What struck me about Saint Catherine of Bologna today was how as the prioress of her convent she would take on the penance of every sister she gave penance to. They would both do the penance. There is something about judgement there; however, I am not as good with my words as you and I just felt a welling in my heart when I read that.

    • DiscerningDominican

      Thank you for the comment! I agree with you wholeheartedly – St. Catherine of Bologna’s willingness to do the penance with her nuns struck me, too. Talk about a saint “on the Way”! Her mercy and willingness to bear the burden alongside them surely must have made her ready to join the heavenly host right away.

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