Repentance begins with admission of guilt

First Sunday in Lent

Sunday, March 5, 2017

By Glen Argan

Sin is a room with no exit, not even a window that lets in a glimmer of light. When we face our sin square in the eye, we realize we have let it define us. That sin of adultery, that refusal to help the person in need, that little theft from the corner store has determined our identity.

Except that in our modern, mobile world, we do try to make our own escapes. Move to another city, blame a supposedly treacherous “other” or a simply deny the truth of what one has done. Fictional escapes from the weight of guilt abound.

We find it difficult to fathom that one action defines a person’s life. That is, until we see it happen in another. Years have gone by, but that walking out the door on one’s family has weighed heavily, and the self-justifying denial of sin has made it weigh heavier. One’s face is marred with sadness or hate; the smell of stale booze permeates the room.

The Church provides a good cover too. Who would think that the acrid stench of Satan’s perfume would hail from an upstanding member of God’s people? Yet even from the hallowed house, the smoke may trickle out under the door and crawl along the earth.

One can be oblivious. One cannot escape a prison that one refuses to admit exists. Yet, every scrap of one’s being testifies to a life of incarceration. The search for freedom must begin with admission of guilt.

The Responsorial Psalm for the first Sunday of Lent is the famous Miserere, Psalm 51. “I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me.” The psalmist is in full repentance mode. No denial here; no attempt to deny what he or she has done. The truth is not pleasant, but there it is, bald and in plain view of everyone.

The sinner throws himself at the feet of God and begs for mercy. “Wash me from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin,” he cries. Make it go away. Set me free from my bondage to myself.

Seeing one’s guilt and admitting it is terrifying. But it’s the only way. Who would want to die bereft of love given and love received? Scramble to find the window and push it open. Stagger forward into the light, at first with confusion, but slowly with greater and greater assurance that one is loved and that one will love.

“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.” Hope is possible because while the light reveals sin, it also enables one to see the way forward.

Can a person emerge from the dingy den he has created for himself and still find joy? The psalmist says yes. “Restore in me the joy of your salvation.” Joy does come with repentance. The prison dissolves, and freedom rings through the clear air.

The sinner shouts with praise and thanksgiving. “O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise.” Sin is forgiven.

[Other readings: Genesis 2.7-9, 16-18. 25; 3.1-7; Romans 5.12-19; Matthew 4.1-11]

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