HOW TO EXPERIENCE YOUR SCARLET SINS BECOMING AS WHITE AS SNOW
Fr. Steven Scherrer, MM, ThD
Homily of Monday, Seventh Week of the Year, February 20, 2017
Sirach 1:1-10, Psalm 92, Mark 9:14-29
Scripture quotations are from the RSV unless otherwise noted.
"And Jesus asked his father, ‘How long has he had this?' And he said, ‘From childhood. And it has often cast him into the fire and into the water, to destroy him; but if you can do anything, have pity on us and help us.' And Jesus said to him, ‘If you can! All things are possible to him who believes.' Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, ‘I believe; help my unbelief!'" (Mark 9:21-24).
This is the account of Jesus' healing of the boy whom a dumb spirit would often seize and cast down so that he "foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid" (Mark 9:18). The father of this boy hopes that Jesus will be able to cure him, but his faith is still weak. He only says, "If you can do anything, have pity on us and help us" (Mark 9:22).
Jesus points out the weakness of his faith by repeating the father's doubting phrase, "If you can!" (Mark 9:22). It is as if Jesus were saying, What do you mean "If you can!" What kind of faith is that? Then Jesus indicates the importance and power of true faith for receiving God's blessings by saying, "All things are possible to him who believes" (Mark 9:23).
The father gets Jesus' point and makes a profession of faith, apologizing for his previous doubts and asking for his help to overcome them. "I believe," he says; "help my unbelief" (Mark 9:24). At that, Jesus cures the boy with a simple word of command.
Afterwards his disciples asked him why they were not able to cast this spirit out. Jesus answers, "This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer and fasting" (Mark 9:29 RSV).
The word "fasting" is absent from some Greek manuscripts, so it is uncertain whether it was originally part of the text. The RSV, NKJV, KJV, and Latin Vulgate have "fasting" in the text. The New Jerusalem Bible, the New Revised Standard Version, and the 26th edition of the Greek text (Nestle-Alan) relegate it to a footnote as a possible reading.
The whole point of this account is to underline the importance of faith for receiving God's miraculous cures. This applies to forgiveness of sins and justification also. If we are praying for forgiveness for our sins that trouble us, and if we want a pure and clean conscience, filled with the light of Christ's righteousness shining within us, we must cry out to God with faith. We must ask for it with a prayer of faith. It is God's power that will grant us this favor and grace, but we must ask for it and entrust ourselves to the merits of Christ's death on the cross.
Fasting also helps, but it should not be done to try to atone for our sins, for Christ does that for us on the cross, when we put our faith in him. It is Christ's merits, not the merits of our fasting that win us the forgiveness and justification that we seek. All that we need to do to receive this blessed grace that makes us who are scarlet from our sins white as snow is to stretch out our empty hand and receive the forgiveness God wants to give us. This reaching out of our empty hand is believing in Jesus Christ and the atonement his death on the cross makes for our sins. If we do that and entrust ourselves to the merits of his death, believing that he has the power to do this for us, and if we fully repent of our sins and intend to turn completely away from them, God will declare and make us righteous and will do it justly and legally, because full and just reparation has been made for our sins on the cross.
That is why Jesus questions the man's faith in today's gospel, precisely because he seems to lack the faith needed to receive the cure of his son. Jesus then reassures him, saying, "All things are possible to him who believes" (Mark 9:23).
As for forgiveness of our sins and justification, most of us want to really feel forgiven and justified. We want this to be a part of our human experience. Sin makes us feel defiled and polluted, makes us not feel good about ourselves. We deeply desire to once again feel clean and pure. We want to feel good about ourselves again. We want to know that we have been acquitted and made righteous, and we want to feel righteous, with the very righteousness of Christ himself shining within us. We want to actually experience what Isaiah prophesied about us, "Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool" (Isaiah 1:18).
How can this come about? Christ gave us a powerful sacrament to enable this to happen, the sacrament of reconciliation, whereby we confess our sins to a priest, who is Christ's representative, and he then gives us sacramental absolution as Christ speaking directly to us through him. He does this if he sees that we have genuine repentance (that is, a firm purpose of amendment) and faith in the merits of Christ's death to do this for us. The priest's formula of absolution then communicates to us God's declaration that we are now righteous, because of the atoning and reparation-making death of Christ on the cross for our sins.
The actual words that the priest uses are these: "God the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son, has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins. Through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit."
This sacrament of reconciliation is based on Jesus' words to his apostles after his resurrection: "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained" (John 20:22-23).
The normal result of receiving this sacrament is the peace that we seek. We feel forgiven and once again resplendent with Christ's own righteousness shining within us; and we feel that our sins are gone.
What then does fasting have to do with this, if it is part of the original text, and many editors think that it is? As I said above, fasting certainly should not be seen as our attempt to atone before God for our sins, for Christ has already done that for us. Fasting rather helps us because it makes us more sensitive to spiritual things. When we weigh down our hearts with gluttony, we desensitize ourselves spiritually, so that we become heavy and dissipated, unspiritual, unable to pray or experience the love of God in our heart.
"Take heed to yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life, and that day come upon you suddenly like a snare" (Luke 21:34).
"It was I who knew you in the wilderness, in the land of drought; but when they had fed to the full, they were filled, and their heart was lifted up; therefore they forgot me" (Hosea 13:5-6).
"But Jeshurun waxed fat, and kicked; you waxed fat, you grew thick, you became sleek; then he forsook God who made him, and scoffed at the Rock of his salvation" (Deuteronomy 32:15).
"Woe to those who rise early in the morning, that they may run after strong drink, who tarry late into the evening till wine inflames them; they have lyre and harp, timbrel and flute and wine at their feasts; but they do not regard the deeds of the Lord, or seek the works of his hands. Therefore my people go into exile for want of knowledge" (Isaiah 5:11-13).
"Woe to those who lie on beds of ivory, and stretch themselves upon their couches, and eat lambs from the flock, and calves from the midst of the stall; who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp, and like David invent for themselves instruments of music; who drink wine in bowls, and anoint themselves with the finest oils, but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph! Therefore they shall now be the first of those to go into exile" (Amos 6:4-7).
What then is the opposite of this gluttony? It is fasting, eating plain, simple, healthy food so that we are light in the early morning for our time of prayer and contemplation. Fasting helps us to find our delight in the Lord, and not divide our heart with unnecessary doctored-up dishes and elaborate gastronomic concoctions whose names we don't even know how to pronounce, let alone know their meaning.
Fasting is not to atone for our sins, Christ does that for us. Fasting and simple eating is to sensitize ourselves to the things of the spirit, to be able to experience the cleansing work of God within us in forgiving and justifying us. Fasting helps us to experience our scarlet sins becoming as white as snow and our crimson red sins becoming like wool (Isaiah 1:18).
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