Dissolving the Weight of Sin -- Sermon for Sunday, August 14
“Let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith.”
These past two weeks, we have seen how we need to detach ourselves from material possessions in order to be ready to meet the Lord. Today, we see why that detachment from the things of this world is important on an even deeper level: as a practice for detachment from sin, in order to burn with the fire that Christ wishes were already blazing.
What does it mean, then, that sin is a burden that clings to us? Our past sins are weights that bend our souls downwards and incline them to commit other sins, as we hear in the Psalms: “as a heavy burden my iniquities are become heavy upon me” (Ps 38:5). For this reason, St. Gregory the Great tells us, “if a sin is not dissolved by penance, its weight soon leads to another.”
When Gregory refers to the weight of sin being dissolved by penance, he points to two important realities: First, the Sacrament of Penance (the technical name for Confession). In this sacrament, the weight of sin is dissolved by the power of absolution. We often think of a kind of psychological relief that comes from this sacrament – we feel like a weight has been lifted from our shoulders. However, it often happens, especially when we practice the Sacrament of Penance often – that we don’t feel any different. And that’s okay! Actually, it might be even better, because confession does not exist to make us feel better. It exists for the forgiveness of sins, which weigh down upon us regardless of whether they make us feel bad or not. Many people commit very grave sins on a regular basis without ever “feeling bad” about it, but they need the Sacrament of Penance all the more!
The penance that dissolves the weight of our sins is not just the Sacrament of Penance, though. We have all had the experience of confessing a sin and then finding that we keep committing it. This is frequently because of our lack of performing works of penance that have the power to dissolve the weight of our past sins. Without a life of penance, we will continue to experience the weight of sin and will get pulled back down to further sins.
By “penance,” we mean first the detestation of sin – not just sin in general, nor sin in another person, but hatred of my own sins precisely because sin offends God. This awareness of having gravely offended God’s majesty leads us to perform works of penance, intentionally performing prayers, fasts, or works of charity in order to make reparation for the damage my sins have done to my neighbor, to the Body of Christ (the Church), and to myself. It is, ironically, precisely by recognizing ourselves as sinners and performing works of penance that the weight of sin that inclines us to further sin can be dissolved from our hearts. That is, unless we recognize ourselves as sinners and act accordingly through penance, we will become even worse.
Bodily penance is also important in that it reminds us of the unity we experience as human persons. The human body and what we do in it is essential to our relationship with God. Sins that we commit in our bodies weigh down upon our souls, but living virtuously in the body, and especially living the virtue of penance, elevates our souls to be closer to God. It is a common experience of converts to Catholicism to wonder what in the world whether or not they eat meat on Fridays has to do with their relationship with God. But Catholicism is a religion of the whole person. We worship God in our bodies – in the fullness of traditional liturgical worship, and by transforming physical matter to be a conveyance of grace in the sacraments. And we worship God in our bodies as well when we declare our hatred of the sins that offend Him by performing works of penance in our bodies.
This is why Holy Mother Church directs us to perform works of penance each and every Friday of the year (unless a Solemnity should happen to fall on that day). Yes, all year long, not just during Lent. Ordinarily, this would be abstaining from meat, although outside the season of Lent we are allowed to substitute another penance if it is not feasible for us to abstain from meat on that day.
The weight of sin is also dissolved by frequent meditation upon the Passion of Christ. St. Gregory the Great also tells us that, “If Christ’s Passion is recalled to mind, nothing is too difficult to bear with equanimity.” The same St. Paul who tells us today to “[keep] our eyes fixed on Jesus,” also tells us that, “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor 2:2). It is through continually calling Christ’s Passion to mind that He becomes most perfectly the leader and perfecter of our faith, as the Letter to the Hebrews tells us today.
When we continually call Christ’s Passion to mind, and perform works of penance that help purge the weight of sin from our lives, we approach life differently. Recently, someone asked me about the experience of the middle-of-the-night emergency calls that priests receive from time to time. I recalled a particularly dramatic one from early in my priesthood that helped me see the importance of keeping Christ’s Passion always in my mind:
I was woken at about 2 a.m. with one of those “he is not doing well” messages that HIPPA-constrained hospital chaplains use to tell you that things are really, really bad. A young man was in cardiac arrest. After several rounds of CPR, his heart was beating again – just long enough and just at the right time for me to anoint him and give him the Apostolic pardon. Almost immediately afterwards, his heart stopped beating again and the nursing staff began chest compressions. If you’ve never seen CPR being performed – it is a scary thing, especially upon someone you love. So his mother was understandably distraught, and as nurse after nurse spelled each other in the exhausting labor of CPR, broken only by his body being shaken by the defibrillators, she was in terrible despair.
No one prepares you in seminary for the moment when you – the 29-year-old man with practically no real-world life experience – are going to help mom understand that they’re going to stop doing chest compressions because it’s all over. And so at 2:30 in the morning, still dazed and confused by the bright lights of the ICU, an understandably distraught woman was screaming at me, as the representative of God and an unjust world, unable to cope with the sudden and tragic loss of her son.
I wanted so desperately to help her, to speak hope, love, and mercy into a tragic situation, from which I was deeply convinced that God was not nearly as absent as He seemed. But the only thing I could do in that moment, cut off from escape by medical apparatuses and a crowd of ICU staff, was suffer at the hands of the person I most wanted to help.
It wasn’t until later that I realized that I had experienced just a small part of the Passion of Christ. “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!” (Matt. 23:27, RSVCE). And He suffered so much more at the hands of those He most wanted to save – not just the soldiers and chief priests, but all of us whose sins held Him to the Cross. And because His sufferings were not a failure – together with His Rising from the dead, they did bring hope, love, and mercy into the tragedy of a fallen world – mine did not have to be either.
It is only through a life of penance and constant meditation on Christ’s Passion and Death that moments like that can be transformed into encounters with grace. If you’re waiting for the feel-good, surprise ending twist to that story, I’m sorry, but there isn’t one. The ordinary path to recover from grief, to see God’s work amidst great sorrow, is not a euphoric moment, but “something given / And taken in a lifetime’s death in love.” It is in choosing every day to carry our Cross, to turn away from sin, to perform penance, and keeping our eyes fixed on “Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith,” and Him crucified, through all that, that darkness is slowly transformed into shadow, and eventually light. But this side of Heaven, it is a light that remains dim. “For now, we see through a glass, darkly; but then, face to face” (1 Cor 13:12).
St. Paul exhorts us: “you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood.” In learning truly to detest sin in all its manifestations, and in living a life of penance we too, “For the sake of the joy that lay before [us, can endure] the cross, despising its shame,” one day, freed from all the weight of our sins by the merits of Christ’s suffering, death, and resurrection applied to ourselves through Christian penance, can hope to see His glory “at the right of the throne of God.”
The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson
Parish Church of St. John the Evangelist, Goshen
XX Sunday through the Year, A.D. MMXXII