Text: Baruch 5:1-9; Philippians 1:3-6, 8-11; Luke 3:1-6.
John the Baptist proclaimed “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”1 Those who wanted this baptism went to John to receive it, meaning that they desired it. That initiative, the awareness of a need for such forgiveness, is an initiative that comes from God, whose love wants to draw us to herself, but the awareness is a challenge for us.
Awareness of sin involves a tricky balance: on the one side is pride and denial, and on the other is recrimination and self-hate. Conscience will help identify sin, but it’s easy to shut out its still, small voice.2 Sin is a more slippery thing than we care to admit; I highly recommend C.S. Lewis’ little book, The Screwtape Letters, as a wonderfully clear image of how subtle and varied are the ways in which we can prefer our own ways to God’s. I won’t dwell on this aspect, though: we can save that for Lent.
Having identified our sins, it’s easy to become mired in the guilt for which our Catholic church is sadly well-known, and I want very much to fight that attachment to sin and guilt which is so often an obstacle to living freely in God’s love.
I attended a seminar on basic meditation some years ago, taught by aikido instructor Mary Heiny Sensei, and she explained something in that context that applies here. When meditating in the Buddhist manner, one aims to be undisturbed by thoughts. This is very difficult for our minds, which naturally generate thoughts at a prodigious rate. Just try it: I’ll be quiet for about fifteen seconds, and all you have to do is not think anything at all.
Anybody manage it? Not so easy, is it? Thoughts happen, and in becoming aware of them, our natural reaction is to tense up and fight the thought, which just compounds the problem. What she advised was that we recognize and acknowledge that the thought has appeared, and then just let go of it with the one word, “thinking”. Let it drop away like a rock into a pool. The trick is now not to become frustrated, hurling the rock with an oath of “Thinking!” but letting it slip gently into the water so that it makes as few ripples in one’s stillness as possible. One then returns naturally and effortlessly to the meditative state, being disturbed less and less by thoughts: acknowledged, they can stop clamoring for attention and slip away one by one. Again, take a few seconds and try it.
Most of you probably still had thoughts, but perhaps it was less frustrating the second time. You may not even have noticed that I waited about twice as long the second time as the first.
We have too often been taught to be attached to our sins. Like Jacob Marley’s chains, they weight down our spirits, trapping us in the past and preventing us from acting freely in the moment. I’m as guilty of this as anyone—whups, there it is again! Guilting! What I mean to say is, I’ve experienced this, and because I get caught up in the images of past wrongs, I miss present opportunities to do right.
Do I mean that I shouldn’t be aware of my sins? Of course not: I can’t learn to do right unless I know the difference between right and wrong. Experience is the best teacher because the consequences of things are always easier to see in hindsight than they are to predict, but we learn to imagine consequences based on what we’ve seen before.
Again, do I mean that I shouldn’t take responsibility for my sins? And again, of course not: it’s my responsibility to do what I can to make reparation for any harm I’ve caused, whether by sin or by accident. My point is, though, that making reparation should be inseparable from doing the good I can right here, right now. I can’t undo what I’ve done, or unsay what I’ve said; I can only move forward and do what is right. The world is now as it is, not as it was. Recriminations are as unproductive in this as they are in meditation.
Thus, Baruch tells the Israelites in exile to “put on forever the beauty of the glory of God … [and] the robe of righteousness that comes from God.”3 They had sinned—thus their exile—but they are not to dwell there; they are to return to God, and so are we. Each of us is invited back to God’s love in every instant. John withheld baptism from nobody, baptizing tax collectors and Jesus alike. Sin became as nothing: John’s baptism was with water in a river, where sins are symbolically not only washed from the person, but swept completely away from the community, so that the baptized comes from the river as they came from the waters of the womb.
Paul’s prayer sums it up best: “that [our] love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help [us] determine what is best.”4 We may stumble, but each time, we take God’s hand and are picked up to keep going forward. When we live this way, we can be confident in the promise that “all flesh shall see the salvation of God”5’s unfaltering love.
1: Luke 1:3
2: Borrowed from the anonymous source who said that "conscience is the still small voice that makes you feel still smaller."
3: Baruch 5:1-2
4: Philippians 1:9
5: Luke 3:6