Ash Wednesday Print
By James Schall   
Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Today, Ash Wednesday, the breviary cites St. Clement’s Epistle to the Corinthians. Clement was the third pope after Peter, around the end of the first century of the Christian era. The first canon of the Mass names him.

The letter begins: “Let us fix our attention on the blood of Christ and recognize how precious it is to God his Father, since it was shed for our salvation and brought the grace of repentance to all the world.”

On Ash Wednesday, I like that line. The blood of Christ "brought the grace of repentance to all the world.” Now the world does not know much about this bringing, or even want to know it. But without this grace, we are pretty much boxed into ourselves. We live in a world full of sin. But no one wants to call sin by its correct name, lest it imply something to do with him, something to be done about it, other than to deny he ever did it.

The reason why Christ’s blood is “precious” in the Father’s sight is not that the Godhead likes blood. It is precious because Christ’s free sacrifice made it possible for the Father to offer to “all the world” a way to repair or to repent their sins, one that would respect human freedom. Not even God can forgive our sins by taking away our part in them.

God’s way to deal with our sins requires something on our part, beginning with recognizing that we are in fact sinners, not just in the abstract, but in particular instances in our lives. We are, of course, less than delighted to hear about, let alone do something about, our sins. Indeed, today, almost everything conspires against our naming our sins or admitting the depths to which they disorder us and our world.

Yet in the Gospels, it says that God is happier over the repentance of one sinner than ninety-nine just. So is the repentant sinner happy, not to mention the ninety-nine who have no immediate need, if there be so many?

St. Irenaeus (about 200 A.D.), in his famous treatise Against Heresies, wrote: “The Son performs everything as a ministry to the Father, from beginning to end, and without the Son no one can know God.” God, I think, was rather more insistent in our learning this truth than we admit. The urgency was to “go forth and teach all nations.” Likewise, a strange, perhaps, diabolical resistance, is found against allowing this going forth to happen in the nations.

St. Basil the Great (d. 379 A.D.), in his “Detailed Rules for Monks”—a great title!—wrote: “This is the definition of sin: the misuse of powers given us by God for doing good, a use contrary to God’s commandments. On the other hand, the virtue that God asks of us is the use of the same powers based on a good conscience in accordance with God’s command.”

Sin is not possible unless it takes place in a being who is good, in one who seeks what he wants to say or define as good. To put it another way, every sin is a repetition of the sin of Adam and Eve, a choice, in each particular case, to define what sin is by ourselves. We exempt ourselves from the law of our nature, from the commandments, which summarize it.

We hear, especially from those who have the problem that repentance seeks to address for their own good, that sin and repentance are too “negative.” Tell us something “positive.” This “positive” thing we want to hear, however, is something that enables us to be forgiven without our having to do anything. The fact is, no one can forgive sins but God alone, such is their de facto depth, if we would only see it. The astonishing thing is not that we sin. We do not have to be geniuses to notice that this unpleasant activity happens rather frequently among us, however reluctant we are to name it.

What about the “joy” over the repentant sinner that is echoed in heaven? Repentance is not a key to depression but, for most of us, almost the only key to our delight. What is this delight? The same St. Basil adds: “What, I ask, is more wonderful than the beauty of God? What thought is more pleasing and satisfying than His mercy? …The radiance of the divine beauty is altogether beyond the power of words to describe.”

On Ash Wednesday, it seems safe to say that we do not and cannot see such divine beauty unless we pass through the “blood” of the Cross. This is the way given by the Father to attain the real end that “all the world” seeks.

James Schall, S.J., is a professor at Georgetown University, and one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America.

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