G. K. Chesterton once wrote about being asked the following question, “Why did you join the Church of Rome?” Chesterton was an agnostic in his youth, then was an Anglican for many years before entering the Catholic Church in 1922. The “first essential answer” to that question, he wrote in his autobiography, is “‘To get rid of my sins.’ For there is no other religious system that does really profess to get rid of people’s sins.”
Chesterton’s response might sound glib to some, especially since the topic of sin is not only unpopular in general, it is sometimes avoided by Catholics. Once, while visiting another part of the country, I was told by a trustworthy Catholic that he had not heard any mention of sin from the pulpit in over 20 years! How could that be, I wondered? After all, words such as “sin,” “sinful” and “sinners” appear close to a thousand times in the Bible.
Specifically, would that be possible with today’s readings? The passage from Isaiah 43 is part of a longer section (40-48) filled with hymns to God speaking of redemption, forgiveness and the restoration of the Israelites exiled in Babylon. The Lord stated he was “doing something new”; the past, with all of its grave failings and sins, is not the final word on the present or future. God can bring forth rivers of life in the desert of our sinful souls. God is not a confusing god of “yes” and “no,” as St. Paul tells the Christians in Corinth, but the God of “yes.” What does that mean? That while man can turn from God and “grow weary” of him, God continues to extend his mercy and love, even while he condemns our sins and offenses.
It is essential here to recognize that sin is not an offense against a capricious and unstable deity, but is the breaking of communion with the holy, consistent and perfect Creator. “Sin is before all else an offense against God,” states the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “a rupture of communion with him” (No. 1440). Put another way, since God is the creator of all things, the ground of being, and the source of all life, sin is the rejection of what is good, true and life-giving. It is an insistence on living according to self-serving desires, rather than in accord with God’s self-giving love. “Any attempt to ignore [sin] or give this dark reality other names would be futile” (No. 386).
Jesus, the perfect expression of God’s “yes” to mankind, scandalized the scribes when he said to the paralytic, “Child, your sins are forgiven.” In doing so, he first made clear that healing spiritual disease is more important, ultimately, than the healing of the body. But he also put forth a challenge to the scribes — and to everyone else, including us: will we admit who Jesus is and accept him in faith? Or will we, like the scribes, look for reasons to grow weary of him and to reject him? Jesus, however, provided at least three examples of his authority and deity: He forgave sins, he healed the paralytic, and he read the hearts and minds of those present.
That encounter was just the first of many such confrontations recorded by St. Mark. Some people rejected the teachings and person of Christ. Others accepted and believed Christ. “To be a sinner is our distress,” wrote Archbishop Fulton Sheen, “but to know it is our hope.” And that hope, as Chesterton knew, rests in knowledge that Christ forgives sins through his Mystical Body, the Church.
Carl E. Olson is the editor of IgnatiusInsight.com.