Ps 51:3-4, 12-13, 18-19 Denying Sin Means Denying Christ
Wednesday of the First Week of Lent
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By Benedict Augustine
“Have mercy on me, O God, in your goodness;
in the greatness of your compassion wipe out my offense.
Thoroughly wash me from my guilt
and of my sin cleanse me.”
Before people stop believing in God, they usually stop believing in sin. They confuse the issue of right and wrong, make it all subjective or relative, and soon stop believing in morality altogether. In its early days, the Church had to address this tendency that arose with the Pelagianist heresy, which denied the existence of Original Sin. Many doctors, including St. Augustine, quickly saw that this belief would have a dangerous domino effect: a denial of original sin would do away with the need for the sacrament of Confession or any of the other sacraments uniting men to Jesus, which would then make redundant the intercession of the Church, which would finally question the need for faith in God.
After so many tracts and writings, the Catholic successfully refuted this heresy, recognizing the important truth that all men and women need Jesus’ saving power to live truly moral lives. No matter which rung of the social ladder one occupies, no matter which era he lives in, he cannot effect his own redemption. Even if, like many deists during the Enlightenment, people acknowledge the wisdom of Christ the Teacher (as opposed to Christ the Savior) and try to live out these teachings in a practical manner, they will do nothing to improve their souls. In fact, taking Christ’s teachings without having faith, hope, or love would only make a person proud and further separated from God.
Since the Reformation in the 16th century, and the religious wars that followed, the concepts of sin and redemption have suffered from increasing confusion. Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli affirmed that one need only have faith to be saved; the Church’s sacraments had not power or meaning, so the believer did not really need them, except baptism since Jesus explicitly tells His disciples to baptize and even undergoes baptism Himself. This change in theology immediately transformed the church from a sacramental body through which Christ entered people’s lives into a teaching institution that instructed members in faith and morals—simply put,the church would only “instruct and console.”
What followed from this fundamental change merely validated the fears of the Early Church Fathers: sin and repentance became personal concerns, which then rendered both entirely relative and subjective, which finally took away its reality. The current situation of Christianity, especially modernized Christianity, reflects this last stage. Many Christians deny Hell, justify most sinful behaviors, and think their benign regard for Christ and themselves will surely land them in heaven. In other words, one can hardly distinguish a Christian from an atheist or adeist; they function and act identically with only a few modifications in reasoning. Barack Obamaillustrated this perfectly when he responded to the question on what he thought qualified as sin, responding, “Being out of alignment with my values.”
Therefore, Christians must return to recognizing sin as a reality, not as something out of alignment with personal preferences. Otherwise, Christ would have come for nothing and His divinity would mean nothing. More than His power over nature, which He demonstrates in His miracles, Jesus has the power to forgive sins. Besides healing the body, which even humans can often accomplish on their own, He can heal the soul, which humans cannot do at all.
When discussing signs and miracles, Jesus does not compare Himself to the famous prophet Elijah who performed so many, but to Jonah, the reluctant prophet whose claim to fame was being swallowed by a whale. Jesus tells the crowd, “Just as Jonah became a sign to the Ninevites, so will the Son of Man be to this generation,” explaining His missions precisely as one of repentance and forgiveness. Jonah warned the Ninevites of God’s impending wrath, causing them to repent and fast; God, in turn, repents of His former decision and forgives them.
Jesus has come to do the same as Jonah, not only for one city, but for the whole world. He has come to offer God’s forgiveness. However, forgiveness only works for people who repent. If one forgives an unrepentant sinner, he only enables and affirmsinstead of corrects and heals. Jesus may share the company of sinners, yet He does not simply tolerate their behavior, but instead corrects it. Jesus has His greatest difficulty in converting people who do not see their behavior as sinful. They saw no need for a savior and even felt insulted by the idea. Aware of this insanity, this direct offspring of Original Sin, having taken root in His audience, Jesus simply warns them that they are making a colossal mistake,and all those who have repented in past willeventually condemn them for their pride and stupidity.
Today, the sacraments, particularly that of Penance (spoken of today as “Reconciliation”), work as the sign that Jesus speaks about. The Christian regularlyprofesses his need for Jesus’ forgiveness, healing, and ongoing assistance. He recognizes that only Jesus can forgive, and that, contrary to popular morals, the individual cannot forgive himself and live free of guilt. The season of Lent offers a chance for the Christians to imitate the Ninevites to repent and fast in order to recognize the plague of sin and the consequent need for Jesus. In this way, they can recognize that the spiritual virtues truly take place in soul, not in the body.
Mt: 6:1-6, 16-18 Acknowledging My Wretchedness, and Feeling Fabulous
Ash Wednesday
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“But when you fast,

anoint your head and wash your face,

so that you may not appear to be fasting,

except to your Father who is hidden.

And your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you.”

Ash Wednesday sets off the Lenten season with a call to acknowledge our wretchedness. With a good measure of honesty and humility, Catholics approach the altar to receive their ashes, remembering that, in many regards, they are failures and need help. Although this day seems to dampen the joy and exuberance that we like to feel and show to others, it effectively brings some perspective and clarity to what Catholicism is all about.

The ashes and fasting of today help remind us of a crucial fact: we need Jesus. People might say this ironically—“Man, you need Jesus!”—which keeps us from fully internalizing this fact. Too many neglect this. Although some might say that a great many ex-Catholics often feel that they do not deserve God’s mercy and grace, that God hates them, I find the opposite: most ex-Catholics feel that they do not need God’s mercy, and that God loves them regardless. This is why it is often easier to approach the poor and indigent with the gospel than our neighbors living in the opulent West. A person who knows fasting, out of necessity, will find joy and wisdom in the gospel; a person who gorges regularly at Chilis or Pluckers will immediately refute the idea of fasting, and buckle under the demand set by the gospel. 

With those who live in error, as opposed to those who live in ignorance, the person entrusted to instruct him in truth has twice as much work: he must not only instruct, but also correct any mistakes that have arisen beforehand. I often find myself in an odd situation having to convince someone that they are actually quite sad and in horrible danger of going to Hell. Telling them that God has a plan for him and desires faith, hope, and love does not suffice. Enjoying the fruits of modern technology, secular amorality, and unbridled hedonism, the realities of sin and death do not seem all that important to the nonbeliever. They do not need Jesus. 

We never see how the story ends for that complacent soul who does not see any need to change. Most Catholics, myself included, tend to try and forget the very real possibility of that person smoldering in Hell for eternity—many, and I am not one of this group, believe that they will have a place in heaven in spite of themselves. Scripture suggests that Jesus desires more from his disciples, both the ones who believe and the ones who have fallen away. We should take in Christ’s words, understand our need for Him, and be honest with our friends and stop hiding our spirituality for the sake politeness and congeniality.

Receiving the ashes and fasting do not equate to “Catholic guilt” as dissenters like to say. They represent the “Catholic dependence on Christ,” not alliance, nor support, but dependence. Feeling light-headed after so much fasting, and looking like a fool from the black smudge on our foreheads, we should learn to derive our joy and livelihood from Christ Himself. Without His love, we truly are hardly more than dirt, hardly different from Adam; on our own, we are starved and we are foolish. While atheists stupidly embrace this materialist vision with enthusiasm, Catholics should recoil and come to their senses.

Ash Wednesday restores a sense of sanity. Early 20th century apologists, inundated with so much psychobabble and existentialist conundrums, used the word “sanity” frequently. They realized that they lived in an off-balanced insane world, smitten with socialism, fascism, and technological progress. Nice as these things sounded, with the order and ease they promised, Catholics had to remember any salvation outside of Christ was perdition—“For you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gn 3:19). We live in such world today, although entertainment and media probably play a bigger role in promising the moon than government systems. 

Therefore, let us put aside this nonsense. As St. Paul says, “Now is the day of salvation.” Let’s pledge our lives to Christ since we know quite well what we are without Him. Then, after Lent, when Easter comes, we can rise with Him and find true peace and joy. 

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