The Sense of Sin and the Sense of the Divine

Douglas McManaman
Homily: 7th Sunday in Ordinary Time
February 19, 2023
Reproduced with Permission

Do you not know that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? If anyone destroys God's temple, God will destroy that person; for the temple of God, which you are, is holy.

Those are really great lines from the second reading. The one time that we see Jesus particularly angry in the New Testament is when he drives the money changers from the temple, overturned their tables, grabbed a chord and beat them with it; for it was the desecration of the temple that angered him above all. And now St. Paul says that you are the temple: "If anyone destroys that temple, God will destroy that person". The parallel is the gospel text that says anyone who is a scandal to one of these little ones who believes in me, it would be better for that person to have a millstone tied around his neck and be thrown into the sea. That was the harshest thing Jesus ever said, and he seems to have said many harsh things.

A couple of weeks ago I asked a group of confirmation students in Toronto: "How many of you have a "sense of the divine" (sensus divinitatis), an interior sense of God's presence in your lives. The majority of the 40 or so grade seven students put up their hands. I was very impressed with this, and I urged them to value that and protect it, because it may not necessarily stay with them all their lives. They can lose it, if they're not careful, especially in their adult years. A week later I asked them: "How many of you have a sense of sin?" Again, the same majority put up their hands.

What is interesting is that the two are connected; for the only way to have a sense of sin is to have a sense of the divine. If one does not have an awareness of the personal presence of God within one's own interior, one will not have a sense of offending him by doing something contrary to His will, which is what sin is.

It was popular in the 60s and 70s to downplay any talk of sin, both at the parish level and in the schools. It was considered unduly negative. And so the words error, mistake, or weakness, were substituted for the word sin. Instead of "...let us call to mind our sins and ask the Lord for pardon and strength", we would sometimes hear at Mass: "...let us call to mind our frailties and ask the Lord for pardon and strength. The problem here is that frailties are not sins. We're all frail, we're all weak, but that is no sin.

My first 10 years of teaching were in the heart of Jane and Finch in Toronto, and I can assure you that talking about sin was the students' favorite topic, especially those students of mine who had criminal tendencies, and there were many. Naming the disease that was keeping them in darkness was intriguing to them, and it gave them a genuine hope that there is a way out of that darkness and that one day, when they are ready, they can make their way out.

But more importantly, the good news of the gospel is precisely the revelation of the divine mercy. God's mercy is incomprehensible. It is pure grace, pure gift. But it is not possible to know God's mercy without a profound awareness of sin. If I have no sin, I am not in need of God's mercy. If I am aware of my sins and am aware of how undeserving I am of God's gifts, and if I am aware that I am addicted to certain sins and cannot free myself, and then suddenly I am told that I am forgiven of everything, that God has separated my sin from himself as far as the east is from the west (which means they will never meet), only then will I experience tremendous joy and relief. This is especially the case if I realize that I have been given the interior grace and strength to rise above those sins.

And so those people in the past who, perhaps with good intentions, worked hard to play down sin and the sense of sin in the lives of the faithful, have really only indirectly deprived the faithful from experiencing the deeper joy of the divine mercy.

Unless the message of the gospel includes the call to repentance from sin, it cannot be experienced as the good news of salvation. And of course, the first words out of Jesus' mouth at the start of his Galilean ministry were: "Repent, and believe in the gospel." We cannot repent if we have no awareness of sin. And life without any struggle against ourselves soon becomes boring and banal. There's no challenge. And when the faith ceases to be a challenge, people, especially men, walk away and move on to other more challenging things.

"Gospel" means good news, and the good news is the forgiveness of our sins, the resurrection, that is, it is the good news that the new life of Christ is available for us, to fill our interior, to give us the power to rise above the darkness and to make a significant difference in this world. I've worked with young people for 35 years now, and they always want to make a difference in this world; the problem is we don't have the power to endure or to be effective. We need to be empowered by Christ, and it is only when we die to ourselves and give ourselves to him and allow his divine life to penetrate deeply into us that we actually begin to achieve anything at all. All we have to do is look at the great saints, such as Pope John Paul II, a man of true guts who went to the very end, rising above the crippling effects of his Parkinson's disease out of love for the faithful, especially the young, or Mother Teresa, who also labored to the very end of her life, or St. John Bosco who devoted his life to the young at the time of the Industrial Revolution, or St. Katherine Drexel who tirelessly served the indigenous in 16 states. The list goes on and on. These are people who made a difference in this world because they went out into the world, but they did not rely on their own strength, but on the power of Christ. But it all begins with repentance and the forgiveness of sin and the experience of the divine mercy.

Paul says that we are temples of the Holy Spirit. Each one of us is called to be a sacred space, a temple that houses the presence of God. The light that will fill that temple if we are open will certainly illuminate our own moral deficiencies and sins, but renouncing those sins with determination is the path to the joy of living with an ever increasing sense of the divine in our lives. Such a temple will then illuminate the space outside of us so that others can begin to make their way through the darkness.