The Social Dimension of Sin and of Redemption
The first reading for today’s Mass is the story of Cain killing his brother, Abel (Genesis 4:1-15). It is a tale of sibling rivalry, jealousy and murder. Because of these themes and the fact that it is also the tale of the first human family, it is one of the Bible’s best-known stories which often is retold or serves as an allegory in films, art and poetry. For believers, it captures the stark reality of Original Sin and the consequences of that sin that are felt by all people in every age.
Theologians sometimes substitute muse in place of joke that Original Sin is the only empirically verifiable doctrine of the Christian faith. Everything else requires some measure of trust on our part. But we see the effects of Original Sin all the time – in suffering and death, but also like the story of Cain and Abel, in human selfishness, cruelty, and exploitation.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church refers to Original Sin in a memorable way as the “reverse side” of the Gospel (CCC, 389). Jesus came to save; he is our Savior. This is indeed Good News! But he came precisely because we need saving. Humanity could not remove itself from the mire and tangle of sin, which began as we are reminded today with the disobedience of our first parents. This, as we know, had tragic social consequences.
Although sin is proper to each individual, the Catechism explains that “Original Sin does not have the character of a personal fault in any of Adam’s descendants. It is a deprivation of original holiness and justice, but human nature has not been totally corrupted: it is wounded in the natural powers proper to it; subject to ignorance, suffering, and the dominion of death; and inclined to sin – an inclination to evil that is called ‘concupiscence.’”
Original Sin, personal guilt, redemption and grace, and the hope of final reconciliation with God are supernatural realities. For a person of faith, these are the facts against which the struggle for peace and social justice in our day must be seen.
But just as sin has a social dimension, so too does salvation. “Our redemption has a social dimension,” Pope Francis writes,, “because ‘God, in Christ, redeems not only the individual person, but also the social relations existing between men.’ To believe that the Holy Spirit is at work in everyone means realizing that he seeks to penetrate every human situation and all social bonds: ‘The Holy Spirit can be said to possess an infinite creativity, proper to the divine mind, which knows how to loosen the knots of human affairs, even the most complex and inscrutable’” (Evangelii Gaudium, 178, quoting Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, 52, and Saint John Paul II, General Audience of April 24, 1991).
As we approach the beginning of Lent, Pope Francis invites us to further reflection on the fullest meaning of reconciliation for the individual and for the community. The Holy Father writes, “This inseparable bond between our acceptance of the message of salvation and genuine fraternal love appears in several scriptural texts which we would do well to meditate upon, in order to appreciate all their consequences…. The message is one which we often take for granted, and can repeat almost mechanically, without necessarily ensuring that it has a real effect on our lives and in our communities. How dangerous and harmful this is, for it makes us lose our amazement, our excitement and our zeal for living the Gospel of fraternity and justice! God’s word teaches that our brothers and sisters are the prolongation of the incarnation for each of us: ‘As you did it to one of these, the least of my brethren, you did it to me’ (Matthew 25:40). The way we treat others has a transcendent dimension: ‘The measure you give will be the measure you get’ (Matthew 7:2). What these passages make clear is the absolute priority of going forth from ourselves towards our brothers and sisters” (Evangelii Gaudium, 179).
As we prepare to enter into the holy season of Lent, we recognize how humanity is vitally interconnected. In our prayer and penance, with renewed commitment we seek to reconcile ourselves with Our Lord and to be agents of reconciliation for others in the world.