In the temptation scene in Matthew, the dark heart of the reality of sin is exposed when Satan offers Jesus “all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor,” with only one simple condition: “if you will fall down and worship me.” Every act of sin we commit participates in this tacit agreement to worship something or someone other than God, which is why the “Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy” of the Second Vatican Council describes sin as “an offense against God” (No. 109). Yet Jesus disrupts this implicit agreement, a contract written up with the sins of generations, when he rejects the temptations and lies of Satan and says, drawing on the Book of Deuteronomy, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him” (6:13).
Lent, the season we are now entering, asks us to recall Jesus’ response to sin as the indispensable resetting of the human response to sin. Through our “no” to sin, sacramentally realized in baptism, and in our penitential preparation for the celebration of Easter, that time when Jesus conquered the powers of sin that he rejected in the desert, the church calls on us all to participate in acts of penance. Penance should be “internal and individual, but also external and social,” because these acts give a visible public character to our desire to reject Satan and worship the Lord our God, and they make evident “the detestation of sin as an offense against God” (liturgy constitution, No. 109).
Penance is essential because sin, after all, is easy. It is easy to commit, easy to forget, easy to pretend it did not happen, easy to explain away. It is especially easy to make excuses for our own sin, or to miss it entirely, as Jesus demonstrates with his down-to-earth example of seeing the “mote” in someone else’s eye while missing the “log” in our own eyes. Sin flourishes when we cannot name it for what it is or pretend it does not exist. This can take place at a personal level—when we refuse to acknowledge rage, gluttony or gossip, for instance, as sins against the neighbor and God—or at a social level, when we indulge in Internet pornography, for example, and beyond our own personal lusts, refuse to recognize that our behavior might support the human trafficking of children, women or men.
Sin is also mysterious and difficult to deconstruct. Why do we do things we know are wrong, things we do not want to do? Pope John Paul II, in his letter to priests on Holy Thursday 2002, described the sexual abuse of children as “succumbing even to the most grievous forms of the mysterium iniquitatis at work in the world.” Use of the traditional Latin expression for “the mystery of sin,” is not an attempt to justify sin, but to acknowledge its irrational character and its intoxicating allure, even when rationally we “know” better. Sin draws us away from God and directs us to nothingness and yet, as St. Augustine detailed, it can be so hard to let it go.
Lent is indeed a necessary time in the life of the church and in the life of each individual disciple. It is necessary to recall that the turn to sin is inevitably the turn from God, as it was for Adam and Eve, who desired to be like gods, but instead stumbled to the ground, broken by their own hubris. It is necessary to recall that Jesus, alike us in every way but sin, outlined with his actions during the wilderness temptations the rational response to sin and its intoxications by refusing to turn from life and from God. It is necessary to recall that, like the Psalmist, when we do sin, we can turn to God with “a broken and contrite heart,” and forgiveness and mercy are available to us.
Acts of penance, those acts and reflections in response to our sin, are not intended to burden us but to unburden us, to straighten our backs and allow us to receive the “free gift.” The Apostle Paul writes that “if the many died through the one man’s trespass, much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many.” We enter Lent to say with Jesus, “Away with you, Satan.” Away with sin, so that the gift of God alone fills our hearts and minds.