Reading I (Isaiah 43:18-19, 21-22, 24b-25)
Reading II (2 Corinthians 1:18-22)
Gospel (St. Mark 2:1-12)
In the first reading today, the Lord asks the question: Do you not perceive? Do you not perceive that He is doing something new is what He is asking. And what is the newness that Our Lord is asking us if we perceive? The newness has to do with the forgiveness of sin. The Lord has made certain promises in the Old Testament with regard to the forgiveness of sin. Through the prophet Isaiah, for instance, He tells us that though our sins be red as crimson, they will become white as snow, and though they will be blood red, they will become completely white as wool. He talks about our sins being like a cloud that is simply dissipating, or like something which is cast into the sea.
But that is not the way the people of Israel understood the forgiveness of sin. In fact, Saint Paul makes very clear in his Letter to the Hebrews that the blood of bulls and goats could never take sin away; all it could do was cover it up. Once a year, the people of Israel on the feast of Yom Kippur, which is the Day of Atonement, will gather for a day asking for the mercy of God. In the Old Testament times what they would do was take a goat, and the high priest would confess the sins of the people on the head of the goat. Then they would send the goat out into the wilderness where it would die with the sins of the people. That is actually the root of our English word scapegoat; that is where it comes from – confessing the sins of someone else over the goat, and the goat going off and dying with those sins on its head. But all of this merely covered up sin; it did not take it away.
The Lord calls to us to perceive what He is doing. He is making this promise that our sins are going to be forgiven, and He tells us that He is going to do this for His own sake, that He has called Israel and Jacob to praise His name, but they failed to do so. He has called us to the exact same thing, and tragically most of us have failed to do it as well. And so rather than looking at us and saying, “For your sake, I will forgive your sins,” (if He would have said that it would mean He is forgiving our sins because we deserve it, because we have done such a good job of praising His name that He is going to reward us for that, which is not true) He says, “For My own sake, I will forgive your sins.” It is for His own sake in order to demonstrate clearly to each one of us His love and His mercy because we do not deserve to have our sins forgiven and we never can. There is absolutely nothing we can do that would make us worthy of the forgiveness of our sins. It is a pure gift from God.
Now the difficult part of that is some of us will look at this problem and say, “Well, because I’m not worthy, I can’t be forgiven.” That is a lie that Satan has put into the hearts of many people making them think that they cannot be forgiven of their sins. We can never be worthy of the love and mercy of God; it is a pure gift. And for God’s own reason and for His own glory, He has chosen each one of us to be His follower, indeed, to be a member of His own Son. Because He loves us, He wills to forgive our sins, not because of anything that we have done, but because of what He has done – because God is love. And how does one demonstrate love more clearly than to be able to reach out and express that love in such a profound way to someone who recognizes that they are completely undeserving?
Saint Paul tells us that while we were yet enemies with God He sent His Son to die for our sins. And he says that it might be possible (even though it would be very rare) for someone to die for a just man, but for someone who is unjust it is unheard of. Yet look at what God has done. For those of us who are so completely unjust, for those of us who were at enmity with God, He sent His Son to die for sinful humanity. That is the demonstration of God’s love. Rather than looking at this and saying, “Because I’m not worthy, I can’t be forgiven,” we need to look at God instead of ourselves and we need to be able to say, “Because He is God and He chooses to give us this gift, to reject the gift is to reject the Giver; therefore, I will accept His mercy.” Listen to what Saint Paul tells us in the second reading, that Jesus is the Yes to all of the promises that God has made, and one of those promises was that He would forgive our sins.
Now it is interesting because in the first reading God says, Do not look to the things of the past. What is interesting is that other than the Orthodox, most Christians (that is, Protestant Christians) do not believe in the forgiveness of sin. They believe their sins are covered up in the blood of Jesus, but not that they are gone. What they have done is to do exactly the opposite of what God has said. They have gone back to the things of the past, rejecting the promise God made, rejecting the Yes in Jesus Christ, and they have misconstrued the mercy of God. Rather than believing that sins are truly forgiven, they believe that they are merely covered over. The Church teaches very clearly that when our sins are forgiven they are gone. They are destroyed; they do not exist any longer. At the moment you walk out of the confessional (assuming that you have honestly and humbly confessed all the mortal sins you are aware of that may have been on your soul), your soul is pure. Those sins are not there anymore.
If we want to be able to look for some kind of evidence of that, just look at the Gospel today. Jesus said, So that you know that the Son of Man has power to forgive sin– He says to the paralytic, I command you to stand up, pick up your mat, and walk, to demonstrate through a physical healing that the reality of the spiritual healing has taken place. It also makes clear something very important for us: Many of the ailments with which we suffer are caused by sin; they have a spiritual root to them. If we would be so bold (really, so humble) as to actually look at the cause of the problems, many of the other things would go away. It is not simply a matter of going through the “car wash,” if you will, going to Confession and confessing our sins and getting out, but there is the requirement on our part of repenting, of changing our lives.
We can look at the woundedness in our own hearts and ask ourselves, “Is there somebody that I need to forgive? Is there some vengeance that I’m hanging on to? Is there someone that I’m refusing to forgive?” We cannot be forgiven unless we forgive. Jesus made that very clear when He commented on the Lord’s Prayer. We pray condemnation upon ourselves every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer. Just listen carefully to the words that you will speak in just a few moments when we pray, Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. In other words, “Lord, forgive me only to the degree that I’m willing to forgive others.” That is what we are asking for every time we pray the Our Father. We come to Confession and ask God to forgive our sins, so we then need to be willing to forgive others who have sinned against us. And remember that to forgive does not mean to say it was okay. That is where many of us get stuck. To forgive means “I’m going to let go of it. I’m not going to drag it around anymore.” God is never going to say it was okay that you sinned, but He forgives, He lets go of it, He destroys it, and He puts it aside so it will never be heard of again. That is what we have to be willing to do as well.
Look at the areas within our souls, within our hearts, all the pain, all the struggles that we are carrying around. We need to bring those things to Jesus, not merely to confess them, but to have them healed because that is exactly what we see with the paralytic today: He is healed both spiritually and physically. God wills to do the same for us, if only we are willing to accept it, to look at the spiritual roots of the problems with which we suffer and come before the Lord in prayer, as well as in Confession, so that we can confess our sins and be forgiven, so that we can look at the areas of woundedness within and be healed. That is what the Lord is asking us to do. He tells us that He is doing something new. He is making a way in the desert – your heart – and He is telling you to look. Do you not perceive it? He asks. We need to look at Him and we need to look at what He is doing, and then we need to do what we are supposed to do, to accept His love and mercy and give Him the praise, the glory, and the honor that are due to His holy name.
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.