Thursday, August 3, 2006

Year B 7th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Isa 43,18-19.21-22, 24b-25; Ps 41,2-5. 13-14; 2 Cor 1,18-22; Mk 2,1-12


Today’s readings give us an opportunity to look forward to Lent by drawing our attention to the need each one of us has to be forgiven. Our attention is drawn to the sacraments in general and to the sacrament of reconciliation in particular. For the sacraments truly constitute the economy of salvation. If the sacraments are so important for our salvation, it follows that the Church, our Holy Mother, from whom we receive divine nourishment, is also necessary to attain the end for which we are created.

The Church in the economy of salvation

The Church is a hierarchy. A hierarchy is not, as some would have us believe, an oppressive, patriarchal order. At its most basic, it is a sacred ordering. Our Holy Father, in his homily on the occasion of his installation as Bishop of Rome, said regarding hierarchy: “Presiding in doctrine and presiding in love must . . . be one and the same: the whole of the Church's teaching leads ultimately to love.” Love, therefore, “is the criterion for all teaching” (Benedict Installation Homily- 7 May 2005)

To this end, theologian Hans urs von Balthasar, observes: “the entire structure of the Church, from the Petrine ministry to humblest parish pastorate, exists for one purpose: making saints.” “The ultimate reason for her whole institutional structure and objective side,” writes Balthasar, is “the obligatory vocation to subjective and personal sanctity” (The Saints of John Paul II by Philip Zaleski in First Things #161). This universal call to holiness is seen even more clearly in the document Lumen Gentium, written and promulgated during the Second Vatican Council. Referring to the sacraments, the Council Fathers write: “Fortified by . . . such powerful means of salvation, all the faithful, whatever their condition or state, are called by the Lord, each in his own way, to that perfect holiness to that perfect holiness whereby the Father Himself is perfect” (LG 11). It also must be noted that the Church herself is "the universal sacrament of salvation" (Gaudium et Spes 45). Holiness, as each of us knows from our own experience, is not a state we can achieve through our own efforts. Hence, we pray with the psalmist, “Lord, heal my soul, for I have sinned against you” (Ps 41,5). We need God’s help to attain holiness. The name for this undeserved help is grace.

The Sacraments in the economy of salvation

That it is the hallmark of our divine and catholic faith that the sacraments are the means God uses to communicate grace to us is beyond dispute. However, by holding this we do not restrict God, for the Spirit blows where it will (Jn 3,8) The sacraments are sure means of receiving what God so desperately wants to give us. So, rather than have to exercise subjective and uncertain judgment about where and how God is working, the sacraments give us certainty.

At its most basic the economy of salvation is the ordinary and objective way God sanctifies us. In today’s second reading Paul is forced to defend his apostolic ministry. He makes his defense in a way that aids us in understanding the economy of salvation. In this passage, Paul uses commercial images to describe how the Holy Spirit works in the lives of believers. The seals that are affixed to merchandise signify ownership and identity- like designer labels on clothing today. The seal of the Spirit functions the same. It marks us as belonging to God. The seal of the Spirit also acts as a pledge of deposit, a guarantee of future blessings. The sacraments, especially baptism, and confirmation are what mark us by placing the seal of the Spirit on us, as well as being a deposit on the future blessing of life eternal.

The Sacrament of Reconciliation in the sacramental economy

We come now to the main point of today’s readings, which aids us in preparing for the holy season of Lent. This instruction also informs us of the roles confession and reconciliation play in the sacramental economy. In order to receive the graces God gives us in and through the sacraments, we must receive the sacraments worthily. In other words, we should be in a state of grace when receiving the sacraments, especially eucharist- the sacrament of sacraments- of which, St. Paul writes, one “should examine himself first; only then should he eat of the bread and drink of the cup . . ." (1 Cor 11, 28). The exceptions to this are, of course, the sacraments of baptism and reconciliation.

We are baptized only once. It is, therefore, through confession of our sins in the sacrament of reconciliation that we receive God’s forgiveness for sins committed after baptism. In this sacrament we realize what Isaiah writes about in our first reading. In this passage Isaiah writes powerfully of the regeneration that God effects. Rivers flow in the desert, bringing life to an otherwise fairly lifeless place. God brings water “to give drink to [his] chosen people” (Isa 43,20). The water of which Isaiah writes is a metaphor for God’s mercy and forgiveness. God wants to do something new in each of our lives. To this end, he provides a way to wipe out our sins and to remember them no more (Isa 43,25), thus giving us a new start.

Sin is a concrete reality and one Jesus calls us to confront in an honest and forthright way, as he does so boldly and unexpectedly in today’s Gospel. We kill the divine, Trinitarian life God shares with us by our deliberate failure to keep the promises each of us made at our baptism, in which we “reject sin so as to live in the freedom of God’s children.”

In our readings from Mark’s Gospel over the past several Sundays we have read about Jesus healing the sick and casting out demons. In today’s Gospel we have something like a convergence of these two aspects of Jesus’ ministry when he first forgives the sins of the paralytic man, dispelling the evil he is plagued by, and only then curing his paralysis, which, it is important to note, is not caused by his sinfulness. Let us also note the eagerness of the man to receive what only Jesus Christ can give him.

Oh, my dear friends, that we should be so eager to receive the peace and joy found in the sacrament of reconciliation! By first saying, “Child, your sins are forgiven” (Mk 2,5), Jesus sees the man’s need for forgiveness as a more urgent need than the curing of his paralysis. Indeed, the greatest disability, the most debilitating disease from which we can suffer is sin.

In this currently neglected, but nonetheless necessary, sacrament, sanctifying grace, which is lost through sin, is restored. In confession the priest acts in the person of Christ by absolving our sins. This is done on the same authority that Jesus forgives the paralytic man. Christ, by virtue of his divinity, is this authority. He, in turn, gave it to his apostles, from whom it is handed on, literally, by the conferral of the sacrament of holy orders when a man is ordained a priest.

Lest anyone think this is an outdated, outmoded, or no longer necessary way of understanding how God chooses to share and restore divine life within us, let us turn again to Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium: “Those who approach the sacrament of Penance obtain pardon from the mercy of God for the offence committed against Him and are at the same time reconciled with the Church, which they have wounded by their sins, and which by charity, example, and prayer seeks their conversion” (LG 11).


If anyone believes in Jesus Christ and yet struggles with the necessity of confession, let him/her answer the question posed by Jesus today: “Which is easier to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,” or to say, ‘Rise, pick up your mat and walk’” ((Mk 2,11)? In answering the question keep in mind that it was only because of the hardness of the hearts of those who refused to believe that he caused the man to walk, but it was out of divine love and mercy that Jesus forgave his sins. As to how God’s power is made most manifest, consider what the late Christian songwriter, Rich Mullins sang: “It took the hand of almighty God to part the waters of the sea, but it only took one little lie to separate you and me." My friends, we are not as strong or self-sufficient as we often think we are (Rich Mullins, We Are not as Strong as We Think We Are).

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