Published March 30, 2006
“Forgive me, for I am a sinner.” These words are spoken by each member of our Byzantine Catholic congregation to every other member, at the start of the Lenten journey.
After the initial, sometimes tearful, admission, each person says to the other, “May God forgive us both.”
As you might imagine, this is a very humbling experience because who wants to admit publicly that one has failed?
And yet, as the penitents circle the candlelit sanctuary, saying the words and then kissing each other on the cheeks, my first feelings of shame give way to something else.
Incredible relief. Because sometimes I feel that I am the only one sinning, and everyone else has it just right.
We are more than halfway through Lent. And as with the Jewish celebration of Yom Kippur, these 40 days are a time to make amends with people we have harmed.
There are the sins that are ours alone, such as being too harsh with a child, neglecting an elderly relative or perhaps indulging in destructive relationships.
But there are also communal sins.
How many of us might want to ask forgiveness of civilians whose lives have been irrevocably broken by unjust wars? It is nearly impossible to imagine the destruction that has become the daily bread of millions of our brothers and sisters around the world.
And shall we also ask forgiveness of the skies that we have polluted and the forests we have reduced to nothingness in our endless pursuit of progress? Shall we include the species that have been driven to extinction?
If we are employers, shall we ask forgiveness of the employees that we provide with a legally sanctioned minimum wage, but not money enough for a really decent life?
At this point, it seems like Lent is going on forever, and that each day, more sins are revealed.
But with those revelations comes healing too. It is telling how much money is collected for the poor during Lent, when ordinary folks in the richer nations get a taste of what hunger is like for so many others in the world.
Not surprisingly, the devil showed up to tempt Jesus when he went into the desert for 40 days, and you can bet the temptations are coming fast and furious for many Christians during Lent.
The devil wanted Jesus to turn stones into bread, perhaps hoping Jesus would break his fast. And when Jesus reminded that viper that “man doesn’t live by bread alone,” we get a sense of what Lenten fasting is about today.
Big spiritual insights can result. For one, you can bet that when your stomach is rumbling, you glimpse how very much you depend on God.
But you also get a sense of what life is like for huge masses of the world’s people, whose lives are a perpetual fasting.
We may find ourselves pining for the delicious foods we normally eat, the fine wines we sip and the lovely clothing we wear, which we purchase with money from our jobs.
Lent gives us a chance to realize the truth: God provides everything, including the sun and rain that nurtures the fruits and vegetables, and the talents that help land the job.
In short, our lives are completely in His hands.
When Jesus emerged from the desert after 40 days, his first words were brief and to the point: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
Repenting means, at the very least, to feel sorry for what you have done. And the sorrow doesn’t just come from the fact that our sins, personal and communal, hurt other people, but they also impact God.
This notion, however, is a tough one. God is supposed to be infinite and hugely powerful. So how would something that I do affect him in any way?
Besides, it is hard to say “sorry” to God if we picture him as an old codger in the sky with the long white beard.
It is, however, much easier to picture him, as Catholics do, with His human face, especially the way it looked on the day of the crucifixion.
And realize that the one we are apologizing to is Jesus Christ.
Catholics believe that Christ died for the sins of the world, and that means the sins that were present, past and future on the day of the crucifixion.
Sacred time is not linear, but has a mystical component.
Which means that the terrible things we do today were in Christ’s heart on the day that He walked the path to that lonely hill, where a gruesome death awaited Him.
Without some realization of this deeper meaning of Lent, the season becomes another annoying diet or some dry, meaningless spiritual practice.
When we go to confession, as we surely must during this season of repentance, it may help to imagine that we are saying “I am sorry” to the bruised and weeping man dying on the cross. The one who accepted death willingly to show His love for humanity.
And when we tell Him, “Forgive me, for I am a sinner,” we trust that His reply is the same today as it was then.
“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
Lorraine Murray’s latest book, “How Shall We Celebrate?” has reflections for Lent, Palm Sunday, Easter and other seasons of the liturgical year. Her first book, “Grace Notes” has reflections on love, faith, suffering, grace and forgiveness. Web site: www.lorrainevmurray.com. Readers may write her at email@example.com. Artwork by Jef Murray.