When people talk about you, what do they say? That’s a dangerous question, isn’t it? When the people who know you best say something about you, what do they say?
I ask that question because this weekend we are given one of those rare gospel passages in which Jesus doesn’t utter a single word about Himself or anyone else. We are completely dependent upon St. John the Baptist to speak to us about Jesus. And what he has to say is significant.
The Baptist spots Christ at the River Jordan, and immediately upon recognizing Him declares:
Behold, the Lamb of God,
who takes away the sin of the world.
It sounds familiar enough to us, but what it meant for the people of Jesus’ time was nothing short of remarkable. The lamb was central to the religious life of the people of Israel. When they were rescued from the land of Egypt, only those who had sprinkled their doorposts with the blood of the lamb, and had eaten the lamb as their Passover meal were saved. The sacrifice of the lamb would become a sign of their salvation, a perpetual remembrance of their freedom, and a sign of their new life from God.
Once they became established in the Promised Land and built the Temple in Jerusalem, every day—right up to the time of Christ—the priests would offer the sacrifice of a lamb in atonement for the sins of the people. Remember, John the Baptist’s father was a priest of the temple. John would have understood all this.
When he cries out: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world,” he is announcing that the Messiah has arrived and the time has come for the salvation of all, for forgiveness, once and for all. It’s a powerful statement: The time has come for them to be forgiven, and for all sin to be taken away!
But what kind of impact does such a statement have for us? What does it mean for us that Jesus has come to “take away the sins of the world”? In our culture, and in the world we live in, many say that there is a loss of the sense of sin. To even suggest that there is such a thing as “living in sin” or to consider that we ourselves might be in a “state of sin” at any given time is almost unheard of.
Pope John Paul the Great, in one of his earlier documents called Reconciliation and Penance, writes about this loss of the sense of sin. He talks about the weakening of the moral conscience—our ability to recognize within our hearts right from wrong—and says:
It happens not infrequently in history that the moral conscience of many people becomes seriously clouded . . . Too many signs indicate that such an eclipse exists in our time . . . It is inevitable therefore that in this situation there is an obscuring also of the sense of sin.
—Reconciliatio et Paenitentia, # 18
The Holy Father connects this loss of the sense of sin to several different factors in our contemporary culture, and you don’t need to be an expert in theology or culture to recognize them.
The first one he mentions is what is commonly called secularism. John Paul II defines it as “a movement of ideas and behavior which advocates a humanism totally without God.” We place all of our focus on this world only; all our eggs are in this one basket. We look to our own accomplishments, our own careers, and even good endeavors like work and family, yet totally without reference to God. That is secularism.
Quoting what he had said earlier in his first Encyclical Letter, Redemptor Hominis, John Paul II talks about how man can build a world without God; it is certainly possible. But that world, he says, will end by turning against him.
Isn’t that what we see on a global scale, with nations destroying each other in the absence of any real search for the will of God? Don’t we see this even on a more personal level, when we try to create our own little space or world without God in it? That world, in the end, will turn against us. Secularism, then, is the first factor which leads to a loss of the sense of sin.
The second factor that has caused a loss of the sense of sin in our culture is what could be termed “pop psychology.” It is not really psychology at all, but a mistaken understanding of the human person which “leads to a refusal to admit any shortcoming.” In other words, we simply explain our sin away and excuse ourselves as a product of our environment.
The problems in my life are because of my upbringing.
It is my parents’ fault.
My boss is no good.
It’s all because of my kids.
Everyone else is to blame for my situation; everyone but me.
To fall back on that kind of mentality is to loose all sense of responsibility for my own actions and to loose the sense and meaning of personal sin.
The third factor that John Paul II mentions is moral relativism. Relativism is to say that something certainly could not be a sin all the time. Times change, and people change. So what used to be a sin a long time ago, now that everyone is doing it, must no longer be a sin.
Perhaps an example would be helpful. It used to be a serious sin, years ago, to miss Mass on Sunday. But now we all know lots of people who miss Mass all the time. Therefore, it must not be a sin anymore…right? Wrong! Not going to Mass on Sunday is a grave sin. It was years ago, and it still is today. In fact, 20 years from now, to miss Mass will still be a grave sin, because we are called to come here to worship God.
God calls us together each week to be strengthened in our faith and in the Sacraments of the Church, and to live differently than the rest of the world around us. We are created to worship God, and to give Him the praise that is due. Failure or refusal to do that, as we are guided by the teachings of the Church handed down to us by Christ, without any legitimate excuse, is sin. Defining it as anything else, and pointing to our culture and a changing social climate as the answer, is relativism.
Finally, John Paul II points to a practical atheism as a source of the loss of the meaning or sense of sin so prevalent in our times. Few of us would ever say, “God does not exist.” But we live our lives sometimes as if He did not exist. That is practical atheism.
We live as if we will never stand before God in judgment.
We live as if we will never answer to God for the sins that we have committed.
We live as if it were not at all possible that God could deny us access to the Kingdom of Heaven because of the actions, choices, or decisions we have made here on this earth.
To live in that way is practical atheism, and it causes a loss of the sense of sin.
But why are these things so serious? Why bother spending the time trying to understand them? Because when we lose the sense of sin in our lives, we also lose the mercy and forgiveness of God right along with it.
God says to us, whenever we have sinned: “I want to forgive you; I want you to know my mercy and to know my love. I sent my Son to suffer and die on the cross so that you could be forgiven. I want you back.”
To deny the sense of sin in our lives is essentially to say, “God, no thank you. I don’t want your forgiveness. I don’t need your mercy. I’m fine just the way I am!”
The late Archbishop Fulton Sheen would often say that sin is not the worst thing in the world. The worst thing in the world is the denial of sin. He once received a phone call from a woman whose brother was dying in the hospital. She described her brother not simply as a bad man, but as an evil man. He was a very rough character. Over 20 priests had been in to see him on his deathbed, and he had thrown them all out! As a last resort, his sister asked Fulton Sheen for help.
Realizing that he would fare no better than the other priests, Sheen stayed only 15 seconds on his first visit, and said nothing. The next day he came back and stayed for 20 seconds. Again he said nothing. After 40 days he was finally staying for up to 15 minutes a visit, and it was then that he finally broke the silence:
“William,” he said, “you are going to die tonight.”
“I know,” was the man’s reply.
“I am sure you want to make your peace with God,” Sheen said to him.
“No, I do not. Get out.”
Realizing that he wasn’t going to get through, Fulton Sheen agreed to leave, but before he did he went over to the man and said to him,
“Just one thing. Promise me that before you die tonight, you will say, ‘Jesus, have mercy’.”
He said, “I will not. Now get out.”
Later that night, one of the nurses called Fulton Sheen to tell him that the man had died, and she said that he had died well.
“Why would you say that,” he asked.
She said, “Because from the moment you left the room, he began to say, ‘Jesus, have mercy,’ and didn’t stop until the moment he died.”
We can deny the sin in our lives only so much, but eventually, we must bring it before God. Now, or later, we must acknowledge that we are in need of the forgiveness of God, and when we can do that, then we will be able to recognize fully that God is so filled with mercy, so ready to embrace us, so overwhelmingly in love with us.
And the ones who are able to recognize that are the ones most qualified and capable of proclaiming it to the world we live in, a world that desperately needs to hear the message about God’s mercy.
Who will be the one to tell them? Will you be the one in your world this week to tell others that God is merciful? Will you be the one to stand up with St. John the Baptist and point to Jesus Christ, saying, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world”?