We all know sin is wrong. It hurts others. It hurts us. It offends God and cuts us off from divine love.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church calls sin “an offense against reason, truth, and right conscience; it is failure in genuine love for God and neighbor … It wounds the nature of man and injures human solidarity” (n. 1849).
But Polonius had it right: be true to yourself and to God.
When we sin, we are being untrue to ourselves. We aren’t being who we were made to be by God.
We know God made us. As “The Baltimore Catechism” said, “God made me to know him, to love him and serve him in this world and be happy with him forever in heaven.”
Today, the catechism tells us that: “the vocation of humanity is to show forth the image of God and to be transformed into the image of the Father’s only Son” (n. 1877).
Taken together, these two teachings reveal that we sin when we are not being like God, not showing forth the divine image and not living as Jesus lived. To know when we are not like God, we must know what God is like. As Jesuit Fr. John Wright says, “The New Testament revelation of God is more fittingly summed up in St. John’s expression ‘God is Love’” (1 Jn 4:16).
God, as revealed in Jesus and through the Spirit, is perfect love, encompassing all creation. Whatever God loves has life. God’s love gives and sustains life. God’s love brings forth new life. And God’s love heals anything that damages life.
Again looking to the New Testament, we find that, when we love, we live in God and God lives in us (1 Jn. 4:15-17). Likewise, if we do something that denies life, that hurts or injures life, we are not abiding in God. Therefore, we are denying our true selves and playing false with God. (And look what happened to Hamlet and other characters in Shakespeare’ tragedy.)
Now there are many types and degrees of sin. Understanding them all can get mind-boggling. (Yes, knowledge, intent and freedom all play a part in whether or not we have sinned — and to what degree — but if, by our actions, we have failed to love, we are certainly near to sin.)
The basics are simple. When we sin:
- We are not acting as God wants;
- We are not being faithful to God;
- We are not being God, not living as we were created: in God’s own image and likeness (Gn 1:26) and as children of God and related to God’s Son (1 Jn 3:1-2);
- We are not responding to the vocation of being Christ to others.
And, as Polonius said, we’re being false to ourselves.
However, God’s grace allows us to set things right. We can be reunited with God and others through the sacrament of reconciliation, also called penance.
In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus tells us to “Repent and believe in the Good News” (Mk 1:15). (Some of us will hear those words again on Ash Wednesday.) The good news is that God’s kingdom has broken into our lives through Jesus Christ.
Some translations use “reform your lives” for the word “repent.” That helps us understand the meaning of repentance. Repentance reshapes our lives — through God’s grace — so we can live in union with God and others.
The Old Testament had several words for sin. Two were hattah and hamartia, both of which roughly mean “to miss the mark.” In terms of the covenant relationship with God, sin meant messing up in that relationship.
So, from Old Testament times onward, we have understood sin as not being true to ourselves and separating ourselves from God and others. Then we can’t fulfill the call to live in covenant with God and others. And we can’t live as Christ called us to do when he said “believe in the Good News.”
But when we decide to be true to ourselves, the process of repentance begins. Our English word “repent” comes from a Latin word meaning “to regret.” When we regret something, we want to fix it, make it right. Our hearts want to change and, as we saw a few weeks ago, that is exactly what conversion is about.
The sacrament of reconciliation is also called “the sacrament of forgiveness, confession and conversion” in the “United States Catholic Catechism for Adults.” “The sacrament of penance,” it tells us, “must be seen within the context of conversion from sin and a turn to God.”
Conversion turns our hearts back to God. And, like the father of the Prodigal Son (not at all like Polonius, who died while spying on Hamlet), God always waits for us, to welcome us back and to put the ring on our finger and shoes on our feet.
As the Rite of Penance says, “the Father receives the repentant child who comes back to him, Christ places the lost sheep on his shoulders and brings them back to the sheepfold, and the Holy Spirit resanctifies those who are the temple of God or dwells more fully in them” (6d).
Just like the night following day — only the sun of God’s love never sets.
Kasten is the author of “Linking Your Beads, the Rosary’s History, Mysteries and Prayers,” published by Our Sunday Visitor Press.
Sources: The Catechism of the Catholic Church; “United State Catholic Catechism for Adults”; “Character, Choice and Community, The Three Faces of Christian Ethics”; “The Baltimore Catechism, Part I”; and “The New Dictionary of Theology.”