Sunday, 17 March 2013
5th Sunday of Lent, Year C, Shaftesbury
I want to say a few words about the JOY of knowing that you are 'A MISERABLE SINNER'. Now, this phrase, being ‘a miserable sinner’, may not strike you as joyful, it may even strike you as odd. Yet, it is a phrase that we find frequently on the lips of the saints, and in their writings(e.g. Imitation of Christ, Book 3, Chapter 18). It was how they thought of themselves and spoke of themselves. And yet, as Frank Sheed used to note, the saints are not sad.
For us who are not saints, we can sometimes struggle to understand what the saints understood, and sometimes fail to rejoice in what they rejoiced in. But, even so, for us who are not saints, we can get occasional glimpses of profound truths when we realise, even if only briefly or partially, when we realise what they grasped all the time. I recently had such an experience about the notion of me being 'a miserable sinner'. I've long found the phrase one that I've not warmed to, that I thought was just old-fashioned, and not really identified myself with.
But recently I have identified myself with it, and I want to say a word about why it has given me great JOY. The kind of joy reminiscent of today’s psalm, "indeed we were glad"(Ps 125:3). Why glad, because of "what the Lord worked for us"(Ps 125:3), namely, in this case, in this Lenten context: forgiveness.
Back to the saints: It's a common feature in the lives of the saints, in the process of conversion, that someone who grasps that they are a sinner experiences joy -not sadness. This experience is one that only can make coherent sense when it occurs in the text of having FAITH, faith in the love and FORGIVENESS of Jesus. To rejoice in the fact that Jesus loves sinners you need to first recognise that this category applies to YOU personally, that YOU are a sinner yourself, and to grasp this truth wholeheartedly -not reluctantly and sadly.
We read in the gospel many cases where this was the case, and we can extrapolate many cases where there must have been joy in a sinner even when it isn't explicitly mentioned because we see it in the dynamism of the action that happens. For example, the Samaritan woman at the well (Jn 4:4-42) RAN through the town to tell everyone about this man who had made her sins known to her. Then there was the tax collector Zacchaeus, who seems to have been hated by everyone because he cheated and defrauded and stole from them, and yet had the joy of the Lord's forgiveness, how true to say that "salvation has come to this house"!(Lk 19:9). Or, more famously, St Mary Magdalene was was initially certainly not a saint, a loose woman, "a woman with a reputation in the town"(Lk 7:36-50) but who felt such love for Jesus that she washed his feet with her tears. And the woman we heard about in today's gospel text, the woman caught in adultery and brought to be stoned, and yet forgiven and set free by the Lord, left with just the words, "Go and sin no more"(Jn 8:11). What JOY must SHE have felt! What thankfulness to the Lord Jesus!
Let me comment on this a bit more: Why should the experience of knowing that you are a sinner bring you joy?
First, because it accompanies the sensation of knowing you are loved -because you know Jesus loves sinners. Jesus does not love the proud, or the self-satisfied, or the complacent. He loves the sinner who admits it and turns to Him.
Second, because it comes with a certain sense of RELEASE from self-denial. To accept that I am weak and sinful involves abandoning a certain pretence, the pretence that I am strong enough alone. Such a pretence can be exhausting, and the release from it is a joyful thing.
Pride, however, stops us recognising that we are sinners. The joy I have had recently had only came with the hard recognition of certain long term failures. The joy only came, almost ironically, with the inner saying, "I am a miserable sinner", and finding that for once I actually meant it rather than just said it. For now, I know such a experience is not firmly rooted in me, that my pride is still working within me to try and say things like, "you're not that bad really, you're a decent chap, you're better than that person over there" etc.
What conclusion do I offer you from this? Well, the importance of striving to admit our sins, to ourselves, to God, and, in particular, in the sacrament of confession. We have our penitential service this Wednesday night, 5 priests here to hear your confessions. It is only when we admit we have sinned that we can be released from our sins, and that the joy of knowing we are lovingly forgiven can be ours.