Ash Wednesday – 1 March 2017
The Reformed tradition, or Calvinism, is one of the two major branches of Protestantism. It is the ancestor of most of the American Protestant groups except for those who explicitly call themselves Lutheran. Classical Calvinism has a doctrine called the total depravity of man, a belief that our nature is utterly sinful and that we are incapable of any free movement toward the good or in response to grace.
It is a difficult teaching that causes its share of complications and theological debates. Recently one theologian in that tradition was asked his position on the matter. He responded: “I believe in sufficient depravity – no one gets to heaven and says I deserve to be here.”
Thought somewhat tongue-in-cheek, it was a very profound insight. We are here – or should be – because we believe in ‘sufficient depravity.’
We are not taken in by our culture’s confusions on the matter of sin according to which my friends and I are innocent of any offense but our enemies are demons. We see this in politics, in universities and in every day life.
We are not taken in by the false understanding of conscience – that as long as you believe sincerely that what you want is right, it is just fine and no sin. This delusion is especially powerful in matters of sex, but it certainly is not restricted to that arena.
We do not think that the idea of sin is an insult. Indeed, in a very important way the concept of sin exalts human dignity. The capacity to sin is after all a sign of the freedom God has given us – no less valuable for our abuse of it. If we are capable of sin, we are therefore also capable of righteousness, justice, nobility and holiness.
If our wrongdoing is a sin against God, it means that that we were loved by him in the first place. He does want us to sin because he wants us in eternal communion with himself.
To sin is to fall from a higher place, and repentance and amendment of life are the way back to that high status and calling. Cats and poison ivy and tornadoes and waves of the sea are not capable of sin, but we are because we are made in the image of God.
So every slip, every fall from grace, is serious, even though we distinguish between mortal and venial sins. And even venial sins, those lesser matters that we do thoughtlessly and without intention of breaking our unity with God, accumulate in the soul and alienate us from our loving Father. Sin is so serious that to free us from it the very Son of God ‘was made sin for us’ in the jarring language of today’s second reading.
Therefore, we should believe in sufficient depravity. Or in more Catholic language, we must never presume upon the mercy of God and never imagine that he must be pleased with us because we are so sincere and well-intentioned.
And therefore, we need Lent. We need to receive the sign of mortality on our foreheads as a reminder of what we have deserved by our sin. But we receive that sign knowing that God does not desire the death of sinners but that we turn to him and live. The ashes are, after all, also a confession that we hope for forgiveness and the gift of resurrection and eternal life that God grants not because we have deserved them but because he is merciful.
No one gets to heaven and says I deserve to be here. That would include you and me.
Let this day and this season, then, do their work.
Let there be fasting and abstinence – reminders of our sinfulness and our need for mercy.
Let there be increased prayer and devotion.
Let there be more silence. Turn off the radio in the car some of the time. Turning off the morning news; you can get that little bit of information on line in a couple of minutes.
But let there also be sacred music.
Let there be true repentance and real examination of conscience that includes facing areas where you may have dissented from the doctrinal or moral content of the faith.
Let there be lines for confession comparable to the lines for ashes. [Did you get that?] Much has been lost in the decades when people came every week or few weeks to Confession. And what has been lost is a both a critical piece of an intact Catholic culture and lively sense of our need for grace.
Let us do all these things because though we are but dust – a mere carbon-based life form like the plants form which the ashes come – God has called us to eternal communion with him.