Life is a great mystery. We all are capable of marvelously good actions. Through art and industry, the human family has worked wonders that delight the imagination and advance the common good. At the same time, the sobering and sad fact of life is that we do not always live as we should. Sometimes we do wrong and other times we fail to do the good that should be done. Even when we know the good and want to do it, we do the opposite instead (cf. Romans 7:15); we allow the worst in us to come out. Everyone does. We sin and we suffer the inevitable hardship of alienation and guilt, and because sin has a social dimension, others feel the burden of our transgressions as well.
Human history is one of much good and great achievement, yet it is also a record of sin and sorrow, of pulling away from God which erodes our own self-respect, sometimes sinking into unspeakable horrors. Good and evil, grandeur and misery, holiness and sin, hopes and fears together mark the mystery of the human condition.
Through it all, human life is touched by the merciful love of God. The reason for our struggles and failings, and the wounds that result, is found in Original Sin, which acts like “another law at war” within us and which colors everything we do (Romans 7:23). But while we might be unfaithful to God, he never turns away from us. He made us for beatitude and life. “God did not make death, nor does he rejoice in the destruction of the living. For he fashioned all things that they might have being” (Wisdom 1:13-14).
This is what we prepare ourselves for in the annual Lenten season of conversion and purification, when we are called to examine our consciences, to reflect upon our noble calling to holiness and honestly admit those occasions when we have fallen short. The Church reminds us also during this time that Jesus wants to give us his healing forgiveness so that we might enjoy eternal life in his kingdom.
By his passion and death – by his self-offering on the cross – Jesus would show us his limitless love for the Father and for us. Through the blood of the Lamb of God, he washes away all of our sins, all of our failure, everything that would keep us from God. By his cross and Resurrection, he frees not just one nation from bondage, but all humanity from the more bitter slavery of sin. He creates a new people of God by the rich gift of his Spirit.
When we face daily frustrations and struggle to be good, we need to recall the teaching of the Church that with the gift of grace within us, we have the power to triumph over sin. In and through Jesus we have the capacity to be victorious. When we nevertheless fail – sometimes over and over again – the Lord, who makes all things new, is always there waiting to pick us up and forgive if only we will reach toward him with contrition and seek his healing love. As Pope Francis has so famously remarked, “God always forgives us. He never tires of this. It’s we who get tired of asking for forgiveness. But HE does not tire of pardoning us.”
Each of us can benefit from a frequent examination of conscience. To never or only infrequently examine our life, our actions and inactions, is like living in a dark house with all the mirrors covered. That way we never need to take a look at ourselves or have to see all the mess and dirt in our life. But if we reflect on our lives and our relationship with God – and do so often – we will see where we need to work to make things right, starting with a simple acknowledgement that we could do better.
Before we enter into Holy Week, we might also consider seeking God’s mercy in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. We are all wounded and we all need this healing. We need to affirmatively say those words, “I’m sorry. Have mercy on me Lord, for I have sinned,” just as we need to hear the words of absolution that say to us, “You are forgiven.” While this self-disclosure can be difficult, it can also be profoundly liberating as we acknowledge our sins and as we resolve out loud to avoid them, through grace, in the future.
A number of years ago, I heard a remark about confession that I have long cherished. The person recounted how the great joy, for him, of confession was being able to “wipe away the grime of daily living”. He pointed out that he had no great sins like murder or extortion or adultery to confess. But he bore the “grime” of the human condition and was simply grateful for the occasion to start out fresh and clean all over again.
In the simple actions of contrition, sacramental confession, absolution and satisfaction we are restored to a whole new life. It remains one of the great marvels of God’s love that God would make forgiveness so readily available to each of us. Apart from the Eucharist, there simply is no greater gift that the Church can give her people than the gift of reconciliation.
There is no sin so great that we cannot be forgiven except when we do not want the Lord’s forgiveness. God is love (1 John 4:8), and love does not impose itself. God will never deny us his mercy or condemn us to death, but we can deny that mercy to ourselves and exclude ourselves from eternal life if we do not seek reconciliation with the Lord who is Life itself (see CCC 1033-37, Dominum et vivificantem, 46).
In his divine mercy, the Lord never hesitates or tires of forgiving, so let us never hesitate or tire of asking for forgiveness. As we together enter into the paschal mystery may this be a time of interior renewal for each of us and for the archdiocese as a whole, a renewal that will be deepened to the extent that we commit ourselves to God’s mercy and to the reconciliation that we all desire and need.
As I conclude this series of Lenten reflections, I cannot help but note that in the midst of this Fifth week of Lent we celebrate the Annunciation of the Lord. How appropriate that we would commemorate the Incarnation – the Word becoming flesh – just as we prepare to enter into Holy Week. It was precisely to take on all of our failure, all of our sin, all of our human condition that the Word became flesh and was born as Jesus in Bethlehem so that he could enter into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and mount the cross on Good Friday. Let us not allow this coming Holy Week to go by without availing ourselves of the mercy of God, so that through the wonder of confession and absolution we can walk from the foot of the cross to the joy of the Easter garden and once again renew our own baptismal promises and act of faith.