Posted: 27 December 2011
We all know people who have let us down at one time or another. Sometimes it is only in small matters and other times it is in very great matters. In recent years the media has been very vocal about priests and religious in the Church who have let us down. How can it be that those whose lives are dedicated to God fail to live out what they have promised? Should we remain in a Church where even the leaders have failed to lead with honour?
Even when Jesus Christ walked the earth he was often the target of the criticism of the Pharisees. These devout men were sincere believers but they had trouble with those who did not live the law as well as they did. When the Pharisees saw Christ eating with tax collectors and sinners they became angry, but Jesus reminded them, “those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick” (Mark 2:17). In the 13th century the renowned theologian Thomas Aquinas wrote a Prayer for preparation for Mass which included the words: “I come sick to the doctor of life, unclean to the fountain of mercy, blind to the radiance of eternal light, and poor and needy to the Lord of heaven and earth”.
Too often we forget that we are actually the sick. We are the ones who need our defilement washed away, our blindness removed and our poverty enriched. The Church exists for sinners as Christ exists for sinners, and if we are beyond sin, then we are in the wrong place. For 2000 years Christians have failed to live up to their baptismal call to holiness. Some seem to fail in bigger matters, but nonetheless, we have all failed. Without diminishing the difference between serious sin and minor failings, St Paul made it clear that “there is no distinction; since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:22-23). Because we are baptised into the one family of Christ, though, every time we sin through what we have done, and what we have failed to do, we bring harm to the whole Body of Christ. Thankfully, though, just as every sin weakens each of us, every prayer and faithful action strengthens each of us, and it was Jesus Christ who performed the great faithful action.
The whole reason Christ came was to give us his power and his grace through the cross. If we set our lives towards the cross and never take our eyes from its power we will receive all the grace we need; nothing is lacking in the sacrifice of Calvary. When we sin we need to repent but we must not despair. When we despair we cease to believe that the cross is enough to help us. Similarly when someone else sins in a serious way we can tend to despair especially if the failure comes from someone we hold in high esteem. We can too quickly become disheartened and sometimes cynical. We should acknowledge the significant hurt that comes through human sin and act to support and gain justice for any who are harmed. However, we must also remember that every person is a fallen human being and needs the restorative power of the cross.
In each of our lives there are moments, when, if seen by others, we know they would be scandalised. There are moments when we seem to be taken over by our fallen natures. Some struggle with pride, and some with lust, or gluttony, or greed. But let us not fool ourselves into thinking that we are not capable of falling as low, or lower, than other people. Our lowest moments are those times when we take our eyes from the cross; when we forget the love that Christ holds out for us.
In the face of our private sin and the public sin of others we always have two choices. The first is to harden our hearts and either despair or become like the Pharisees. The other choice – and I propose the only choice for those who are sinners – is to reject sin but to also cling ever more tightly to the cross of Christ. It is to ask the Mother of the Lord for the grace to continue to stand at the foot of the cross, and to be present (at least spiritually) when our brothers and sisters fall. And this last choice involves saying every day with the Apostles – indeed many times a day – “Lord, increase our faith” (Luke 17:5).