November 16-17, 2019
Recognizing Sin for What It Is
To say that today’s first reading from the Book of the Prophet Malachi uses very frightening imagery, in describing the end of time, would be a vast understatement; “Lo, the day is coming, blazing like an oven, when all the proud and all evildoers will be stubble, and the day that is coming will set them on fire, leaving them neither root nor branch, says the Lord of Hosts.”
In today’s Gospel Jesus similarly warns of wars, insurrections, nation rising against nation, powerful earthquakes, famines, plagues, and “awesome sights and mighty signs” coming from the sky. Sandwiched in between these readings, St. Paul in 2 Thessalonians implores the faithful to imitate him in their behavior, and to conduct themselves uprightly.
The call to turn away from sin, and to repent – or to otherwise face dire consequences -- is thus strongly conveyed.
What is troubling in today’s world, however, is that sin is no longer understood and recognized for what it is. Pope St. John Paul II’s exceptional writing, the apostolic exhortation Reconciliatio et Paenitentia delivered on December 2, 1984, offers several noteworthy insights into the plight and condition of the modern world. He stresses that the modern culture has lost its ‘sense of sin’ and has very little use of the concept of personal sin – the sins that the individual person commits. While the modern person can point out the injustices, wrongs, failures, and ills of society, he fails to judge his own individual actions as potentially being sinful. Moreover, he fails to see how personal sin collectively builds a culture of sin -- how personal sin contributes to, and indeed is the very foundation of, the evils of society.
Pope St. John Paul II explains that sin starts on the level of the individual, and then expands and works its way into the broader societal system. Every sin affects society, so every sin is indeed a social sin, even if it appears that the sin is merely one person’s transgressions toward another person. This indeed is the very sense of sin that Pope St. John Paul II articulates, that seems to be lost on the modern person.
As the modern person seems to have lost the sense of God, and seems to have taken God out of the equation completely, rendering God as a dated, imaginary concept, so he has lost the sense of personal, individual sin. Unfortunately, we can at times encounter this form of thinking in many wellintentioned and honorable people. While some, for instance, may applaud the Church’s work on social justice issues, when the idea that the Church and ‘religion’ is necessary as a vehicle to overcome the power of sin in the world and to encounter the mercy of God (which is precisely what the Exhortation speaks of), they can sharply disagree. They simply have no use of the idea of sin.
Transgressions and wrong-doings fit into their vocabulary – but not sin. It does not have a place in their system of judging their actions, and those of others.
Tragically, this misconception and misunderstanding of sin cannot render the modern world in any more perilous waters.
– Father Michael Panicali