The accusation is often made “priests don’t talk about sin anymore.” Perhaps it might be more accurate to say that the way priests talk about sin these days is different from the way they spoke of it fifty years ago. Talk of “hell fire and brimstone” has been replaced by a more biblical understanding of sin. The bible gives us a variety of rich models of sin that are very apt for our time. Indeed the notion of social sin, that society is sinful and that we live in a sinful world is a biblical notion that is more easily grasped in a time of financial crisis, job losses and economic hardship.
In reflecting on our own sinfulness during the season of Lent, one helpful biblical notion of sin is: sin as breaking of our relationship with the God of Jesus. The starting point for such a reflection is not us but God. The readings of the fourth Sunday of Lent (year B) bring home to us very clearly who God is for us. The letter to the Ephesians states: “God loved us with so much love that he was generous with his mercy.” Jesus in John’s gospel says: “Yes, God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that those who believe in him may not be lost but may have eternal life.” Talk of sin therefore begins with talk about God. God loves us and God’s love for us is faithful and everlasting. It is this reality that calls us into a relationship of love with God where we practice love of God through love of neighbour and love of ourselves. The biblical term for such love in covenant or covenantal love. In this context sin is a breaking of this loving relationship, which leaves us at odds with the God of the covenant, our neighbour and ourselves. This makes sin a religious term. It is not simply about right and wrong but a rupture of our relationship with God.
There are many words or images for sin in the bible. One image that is very helpful is the image of missing the mark. Imagine be an archer or a dart player aiming for the bull’s eye. Our intention is to hit the bull’s eye and those who are committed to doing so and practice regularly do so consistently. Others get close, others not so close and others miss the target completely. So it is in our relationship with God. When we are focused, committed and dedicated we consistently hit the mark or bull’s eye. To say that we have missed the mark is to say we have been off-centre, we have not been fully committed, that we given at least some of our allegiance to something other than love of God, neighbour and self.
This rich image of sin can help us during Lent to turn away from sin and to be faithful to the Gospel. Being faithful to the Gospel means being faithful to the covenant, loving God, our neighbour and ourselves. Lent gives us the opportunity to reflect on how close or far are we from making the mark? To what extent do I practice loving others? To what extent do I practice virtues such as compassion, honesty or forgiveness? What else do I give my allegiance to? What do I really spend my time, energy and money on? What vices do I practice that are making my aim unsteady? Another way of looking at it is to ask: what kind of person am I becoming? If I look back over the last year or 10 years what kind of person have I become?
Reflecting honestly on these questions is what we call an examination of conscience, something we can do on our own or in the company who someone knows us well and in whom we trust. When we have done that we are ready to confess and to resolve to turn away from the vices and competing allegiances and to live the Gospel. This is where the sacrament of reconciliation fits. We confess that in some ways we have ruptured our relationship with God our selves and others, we receive God’ forgiveness and the support of the community to renew our commitment to loving God, our neighbour and ourselves.
Take time this Lent to turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel. In plain speak: go to confession in Holy Week, renew your baptismal vows at Easter and spend the rest of the year hitting the target.