Here on the 26th Sunday in ordinary time, the readings have a seriousness of tone that will continue through the first couple of weeks of Advent. In the reading from Saint James, and in the teaching from Jesus in the gospel, we are challenged to take seriously the reality of Gehenna.
So what is Gehenna? The answer to this question is like so many other answers to questions that believers raise, multifaceted. And that’s why I want us to focus on the reality of Gehenna rather than the many alternative explanations for Gehenna. But let’s start with some of those alternative explanations. One that you will hear is that Gehenna was a trash pit, and like many trash pits it was always burning. In this explanation, Jesus was referencing a local physical place to remind his listeners of the importance of being a good person. Other explanations are that Gehenna was the place where sacrifices to Moloch were made. Moloch was the local God of the Canaanites to whom live children were sacrificed by throwing them into a pit of fire.
Three times in the gospel story Jesus contrasts Gehenna with life. So it may be true that Gehenna was a trash pit, and it may be true that it was the place of sacrifice for the pagan god of Moloch, but Jesus uses this imagery as a contrast to life. And when Jesus speaks of life, he is speaking of eternal life. So Gehenna is eternal death. The church has come to describe that eternal death as Hell.
Some of you may be familiar with a talk given by Scott Hahn called the Fourth Cup. Scott does a great job of taking you on a great journey of discovery as a Protestant preacher to learn something profound about the Catholic Mass. From Scott’s talk, you get the sense that his understanding of the Fourth Cup was an important part of his conversion story.
Scott’s personal story really enriches the presentation, but it also makes it too long for our purposes. So I’m going to give you a presentation on the Fourth Cup that fits our time limitation, but leaves out many great details about Scott’s experience while learning about the importance of the Fourth Cup.
I do not know how many times in the Old Testament the writer gives a recap of the Passover and Exodus, but I’ll bet it’s over 25 times. In the Passover and Exodus, the Hebrews were freed from slavery and led to the Promised Land. God took care of everything, from the various plagues and pestilences to providing a column of fire to light the way through the desert. He got Pharaoh so worked up that the Egyptians gave the Hebrews precious metals and begged them to leave. The slave masters gave their slaves presents and begged them to go be free somewhere.
We have in Chapter 12 of the Book of Exodus the instructions for the Seder Meal. God told Moses every detail: the lamb could not have a blemish. The people needed to be dressed in a particular way. The food was not particularly tasty. Who wants to eat bitter herbs or bread without any yeast?
There were other ritual acts at the first Passover: the marking of the doors of the Hebrews with blood from the lamb. Those marked were the houses the Angel of Death would pass over. Everywhere else he would slay the first born.
This Old Covenant marked the day that God’s chosen people were freed from death. So it’s not just an escape from slavery story. It’s a “we were not killed” story. And that remarkable event in history was to be memorialized by God’s people.
Every year, at the Pascha, the people would do a ritualized re-participation in that great Passover. They swept the grain from their homes for a week. They got an unblemished lamb, some unleavened bread, and some bitter herbs. And they got their scrolls so they could read the story and sing the Psalms that were a part of the ritual.
So by the time of Jesus, the Seder Meal is a scripted event. We see in the Gospel stories how the first thing to do was to secure a good place to have it. Jesus gave his disciples instructions on how to go about getting the Upper Room where he and they would celebrate the Old Testament ritual meal.
And the structure was set. It began with a blessing, and everyone would drink from the first cup of wine. Then they would have the readings and sing Psalm 113, and they would drink from the second cup of wine. Then they would eat the lamb, the unleavened bread, and the bitter herbs, and they would drink from the third cup of wine. Finally, they would read a series of Psalms, Psalms 114-118, and then drink the fourth cup, the cup of consummation. After the fourth cup, the elder at the table would say, “Tel Telesti” which means “It is finished.”
That would be the end of the memorial meal. As a good rabbi, Jesus would know how the Seder Meal was supposed to go.
But on the Seder Meal of Holy Thursday, the rabbi went way off script. While the preparations were as one would expect, Jesus does something kind of weird when he explains during the eating of the meal and the third cup that this is his body and his blood. And he says to his disciples something very similar to the instruction given to Moses and the Hebrews: whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, do it in remembrance of me. This Seder Meal is not just a regular Seder Meal. Something new and different is going on.
There are a lot of other things going on at this meal on Holy Thursday. But for our purposes today, let’s focus on the fact that Jesus abandons the meal before it is finished. “I shall not drink the fruit of the vine until the day when I drink it with you new in the kingdom of my father.” They sing the Psalms, but they do not drink the cup of consummation, the fourth cup.
Since we are not Jews, we don’t immediately see the jarring nature of this bit of the story. But imagine if Father said Mass as normal right up to, “Behold the Lamb of God,” and then walked out of Mass. We would all be looking at each other because we know the ritual was not finished as it should be. That’s what the Twelve experienced.
I’m sure you remember the many other important things that happened during the night and into the morning of Good Friday, but for our purposes we are going to fast forward to Jesus at Golgotha, the place of the skull where he was crucified. Last week, I explained the very awful nature of execution by crucifixion, and sometimes as an act of mercy they offered the victim some drugged wine. But Jesus refuses this wine.
You might remember that three of the Gospels — Matthew, Mark, and Luke — approach the story of Jesus in a similar way and share many of the same stories, even to the point of having the same words in places. We call these three the synoptic gospels because they sort of look at things in the same way. The Gospel of John is very different in approach and style. Where it takes Jesus half the gospel to finally get to Jerusalem in the synoptics, John seems to have him there almost immediately after the wedding miracle at Cana. And John presents Jesus in the Passion as a man full of power. And we see that in these quotes from John’s gospel. Jesus says, “I thirst” so they will offer him wine. And notice that the wine is offered on a sprig of hyssop, the same branch used to spread the blood of the lamb in the Old Testament Passover. And then Jesus says the words that close the Seder Meal: Tel Telesti. It is finished. And then he hands over his spirit.
And, just like the unblemished lamb of the Passover, the legs of this lamb, the Lamb of Christ, are not broken by the soldiers because they see that he has already died.
So, Jesus adds something new to the Passover Meal, introducing the words of the New Covenant, and then he seems to abort the ritual and allow himself to be put on trial and sentenced to death on the Cross, where he then takes the cup of consummation and says the closing words just before he gives up his life.
It’s about here in Scott Hahn’s telling that we get all the personal details about how Scott wants to share this amazing discovery of how the Sacrifice on Calvary is the new Covenant and how the Seder Meal has been completed once for all time in the Crucifixion. And Scott – still a Protestant teacher – shares this with some graduate students. One of them says that, as a lapsed Catholic, he remembers hearing something similar in the Baltimore Catechism. So, Scott, in his rugged individualism, discovers something the Church has taught forever. It’s a measure of Scott’s humility that he makes sure to share that nugget.
In the same spirit of humility, let’s look at how the New Testament writers connect Jesus to the Passover Lamb.
Peter uses the now familiar phrasing: a spotless, unblemished, lamb. The Blood of Christ is the blood of the Lamb.
In the Walk to Emmaus, the two disciples are favored to learn directly from Jesus how all the scriptures point to him. And yet, they only recognize him in the breaking of the bread.
St. Paul connects the third cup – the cup of blessing – of the Seder Meal to the blood of Christ. And he explains that the blood of Christ is the New Covenant.
In the Old Testament, the focus of the ritual meal was eating the Lamb and retelling the story of escape. In the New Testament, the focus of the ritual is the sacrifice of the Lamb, and that the sacrifice was made by the Lamb. Never before had the victim also been the priest. But in the New Covenant, that is what happens. Christ accepts the unjust punishment of death by Crucifixion because he is the unblemished Lamb. He carries his own Cross to Golgotha because he is the priest who will offer the sacrifice. He allows them to drive spikes into his arms and hang him there for three hours because we cannot escape eternal death by our own merits. We need Him and his merits. And he gave them to us because he loves us.
That sacrifice is at the heart of the Mass. There are other parts, and some of them are remarkably like the Seder Meal. We read from Scripture, we sing songs, we eat and drink together. But the Mass is not a new Seder Meal. The Mass is Christ Crucified for our redemption. That’s why it is a eucharist. Eucharist means thanksgiving. We offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving and praise to take us back to that day when Jesus offered the Blood of the Lamb so that Eternal Death would pass over us.
The Eucharistic Prayer is perhaps the longest stretch in the Mass when Father prays without being interrupted by us. This is more clear when we hear Prayer One, since it is a bit longer than the others. That’s the point in the liturgy when Jesus is on the Cross, and Father is offering the sacrifice in the person of Christ on our behalf. Then we get our line. We say “So Be It” when we say “Amen.” Amen is “sign me up” and it’s every other way that we express total agreement with what has been said. So let’s make sure we are listening to Father during the prayer of consecration and really mean it when we respond, “Amen.”
Then we are really prepared to pray as he taught us in the words he gave us and then to receive him – truly his body, blood, soul, and divinity – into our bodies. That moment of Holy Communion is precious. Each of us goes up individually to receive him into ourselves and be transformed by that reception.
Without the Cross, there is no cup of blessing. So let us say “Amen” and be thankful.
For the last couple of sessions we have focused on the problem of sin, both the original sin that messed up God’s creation and the actual sins that we commit. Today, we will talk about the central action taken by Jesus to fix that problem for us. And we will work our way through some scripture and doctrines to see how the Cross is a blessing rather than a curse. And we will see how it is central to our mission as disciples of Christ.
Let’s just be reminded of the basic cycle we see in the stories of the Hebrew people in the Old Testament books. Somehow, they end up lost, sometimes in a desert, sometimes in slavery, sometimes occupied by a foreign power. God sends them a prophet, from Moses to Elijah to Amos and Isaiah. The prophet warns them and convinces them to see that they are in trouble because they have abandoned God, and the only way out is to go back to God and obey his commandments. They do that, at least for a while.
Then they slip into mixing in foreign religious practices with the true faith of Abraham and Moses, and that is where we read about the Baals and Moloch, which were gods of the natives in Canaan. The Hebrew prophets had told them not to mix with other peoples and their gods, but they did both. Later, they mixed with the culture of their current oppressor, so we read in the Books of the Maccabees how some Jews wanted to abandon their laws on dress and do public exercise in the gymnasium the way the Greeks did. Called to be a people set apart, they kept trying to fit in with their neighbors. And they would slide again down to a place of oppression and then God would send another messenger with the same message: turn back to the one true God, and live.
The parable of the landowner and the wicked tenants is one that is in three of the four Gospels, so I hope you remember it a little bit. Jesus would tell parables, which are stories used to illustrate a moral or theological point, and this one sort of sums up that cycle we just discussed. The tenants do not respond to the servants sent by the landowner. (The tenants are the chosen people, and the servants are the prophets, in case you’re confused.) Finally, the landower sends his son, just as God sent his son, Jesus, to his people. And in the parable, they kill the son. And in the Gospel, they kill the Son. Jesus uses a parable to retell the cycle of salvation history and to foretell his own death.
But Jesus was more than somebody’s son. He is the son of God. The great hymn in Phillipians chapter two speaks to the son’s sacrifice, and I am for now just looking at the first half of that hymn, which descends — as Jesus did — from equality with God, since the three divine persons are one Godhead, to become like us — a human being with a human nature — and obedient to the Heavenly Father in every way that over all those centuries his Hebrew ancestors had not been. He was obedient even unto death on a cross.
One of the great questions for theologians to unpack has been why did Jesus suffer on the Cross and die? In most religions, the God is not a weakling or a victim, but powerful and untouchable. In the Christian religion, God became Man and died on the Cross for our sins. We were redeemed. That word means “paying off a debt.”
The question that follows is, “Who was the debt owed to?” And for a long time many argued that Jesus was redeeming mankind from its bondage to Satan. So Satan was the bondholder that Jesus satisfied. But that really did not work because God does not owe anything to Satan, and Jesus is God.
So, it was St. Anselm of Canterbury in the 11th century who gave a more satisfactory explanation of atonement. Atonement means what it seems to mean: getting to a place of harmony where everyone is at one with each other.
I have put the four steps Anselm used here so we can see two things. First, this is the kind of logical approach theologians used as they developed doctrine. Second, Anselm shows us that the offense was against God and so the debt should be paid to God and the payment should be appropriate to the offense. But who could make such a payment except God? But who had made the offense except mankind? And so a man must make the payment, but it is a payment only God can make. St. Anselm shows that by coming as a human and sacrificing himself, the God-Man Jesus Christ can make the payment only God can make and does make the payment only a human should make if it is to really satisfy the offense.
And now we see the second half of the great hymn from Phillipians. These three verses rise up with Jesus to his throne in heaven where everyone should call him Lord and Master to the glory of God the Father.
In those six verses from the second chapter of Paul’s letter to the Phillipians we see why the Cross is so important. It is a great reminder that we cannot get to Easter Morning without Good Friday. And it is a great reminder of why Catholics always put a corpus — a body — on the cross. Somebody died on the Cross so that we might live. And it’s why the Exaltation of the Holy Cross is a feast: we found the True Cross on which that somebody — Jesus Christ — died, and we venerate it because of what he did on it.
So let’s get just a bit technical on why the cross as a way to terminate a human life was so awful. It was known to be awful, something developed in modern-day Iraq and Iran, used by Alexander the Great, and adopted by the Romans to send a message to troublemakers.
Rebels, military deserters, and later, Christians, were the main recipients. It was almost never used to execute Roman citizens. St. Peter and St. Paul were both executed in Rome in the first century. The Roman citizen Paul received the merciful sentence of beheading by sword while the Galilean foreigner was crucified on Vatican Hill across the Tiber River.
It took a long time to die on a cross. They had almost always whipped the victim before they attached him to the Cross. They made sure he could not get loose, but they wanted him to hang so that he would slowly asphyxiate. And shock would accelerate the process. Since the soldiers could not leave until they knew the victims had died, sometimes they broke the legs or stabbed the victim to hurry up the process. We see that in the story of the Passion in the Gospels, don’t we. And knowing how one dies from this process, it makes those seven last words from the Cross even more powerful. Think of what Jesus had to do in order to be heard from the Cross when he’s slowly suffocating.
The Cross was a symbol of subjection in the Roman world, but for Christians it is a symbol of victory. Every year on September 14, we exalt in the Holy Cross. It is a sign of our faith. Jesus told us to take up our cross and follow him if we want to claim him as Lord. That’s a hard message, as St. Paul acknowledges. It is difficult to accept the crucifixion as absolutely central to our faith. But we must. We preach Christ crucified, he says, but everyone was waiting for the next King David, who would restore the kingdom of Judah. Thus it was a stumbling block to the Jews, and the pagans just could not get their minds wrapped around such a blasphemous concept that God would die the most despicable death imaginable. This was a death reserved for the worst of the worst, but Christains celebrate it as the best of the best.
St. Paul reminds his readers that the ways of God are not the ways of men. What the world thinks is strong is often very weak in the eyes of God, and vice versa.
We celebrate one feast day, Good Friday, for some reasons I have already listed, but the main reason is this is Christ’s sacrifice. Those of you who are familiar with the story of the Fourth Cup can see that in establishing the New Covenant, Jesus was both victim and priest. He is the sacrifice, and he offers the sacrifice. And we now use unleavened bread and water and wine at the Mass, but the liturgy of the Eucharist is fundamentally the re-presentation of that sacrifice on Mt. Calvary. Every time a priest offers the sacrifice of the Mass, the heart of what is going on is a re-participation in Christ’s one sacrifice on Good Friday.
And we celebrate the Exaltation of the Holy Cross because the Cross is as important as the Incarnation. We celebrate Christ’s human nature twice: Christmas and Corpus Christi. And we celebrate his sacrifice twice: Good Friday and Holy Cross. Tradition teaches us that St. Helena, who was the mother of the Emperor Constantine, went at age 74 to Jerusalem to find the tomb, which along with the rest of Jerusalem had been buried in rubble about 200 years earlier by the Romans after the last big Jewish rebellion. They found three crosses, and they knew which was the true Cross when a terminally ill person was healed when laid upon it.
The Christians in Jerusalem had a number of pious devotions around the passion and death of Jesus, such as venerating the cross and the stations of the cross. St. Helena’s discovery brought some of those devotions to Rome. At some point about 300 years later, the Persians got the True Cross but then it was returned to Constantinople, which at that point was the last seat of the Roman Empire.
As a people sent into the world by Christ, we have to go equipped as he instructed. We must carry our cross as he carried his. We must not let the Cross be a stumbling block but it has to be the heart of our faith. We know it looks completely bonkers to non-Christians, but that is ultimately their ignorance. The Cross is actually a source of strength, and it gives us joy in the world that is so wounded by sin. Make sure you have a crucifix visible in your home. Make the sign of the Cross when you say grace at the local McDonalds. Bless your children with the sign of the cross. Come to adoration of the Blessed Sacrament exposed in a monstrance below the Cross of Jesus Christ. Then take that power, that glory, and let your light shine.
Last week we talked about the church’s teaching on Original Sin, and this week we are going to talk about actual sin.
I just want to spend a few minutes giving some context on why we spent so much time on Original Sin. Our program is called Faith and Mission, and sometimes by the word faith we mean what the church confesses as true. Our faith is what we believe. And the doctrine of original sin is a part of our faith as Catholic Christians. Therefore, it is important that we know what the church teaches about the human condition. We need to know this as we try to live those teachings and proclaim those teachings in the modern world where we live.
I thought it was important to make sure that everyone understood that original sin is a condition rather than an action or attitude, and it leaves us in a condition that makes our mission of being the Light of Christ in the world just a little bit harder. The condition of original sin is that we are born outside the church. Even though we are alive physically, we are dead spiritually because of original sin.
Baptism fixes that condition. Then the condition that we are left in after our baptism is this thing we called concupiscence. As a result of concupiscence, it’s just a little bit harder for us to be the children that God called us to be. Imagine if everywhere you wanted to go was slightly uphill no matter where you were going. That’s sort of what concupiscence does to us.
Saint Thomas Aquinas was one of the great systematic teachers of the faith who wrote about 700 years after St. Augustine. And he used the system of categorization and philosophical methodologies of the great Greek philosopher Aristotle. And their wording is somewhat peculiar to our ears but was the way that thinkers discussed the ideas they were thinking about. And so once we get over the unfamiliarity of the sentence structure, we can see what the great Saint was trying to teach.
Aquinas notes that original sin wounds our nature in four important ways. One of our powers — a word Aquinas uses when he’s talking about intrinsic capabilities or potential capabilities that we have by virtue of being a human person — one of our powers is reason. And the wound to our reason that we get from original sin is ignorance. Perhaps to put it in modern words, we don’t really know how to think properly because of original sin. Another fundamental power of the human person is the will, function that chooses. And because that power has been deprived of being organized to good outcomes, that wound we all carry is malice. It is why we can freely choose to do wicked things whereas God made us to choose to do good things. And the fourth one is concupiscence. God made us to enjoy what is good, but he made us to do so guided or moderated by reason — our thinking power — and the wound is that we are no longer moderated by reason when we go after things that are good.
Between our discussion last week of the scriptures, and the early Fathers, and these words from St. Aquinas in the 13th century, we can see that Original Sin means that we have to work hard not to slip into actual sin, which is the topic for today.
Again we lean on Saint Thomas Aquinas who gives us a framework for thinking about sin and evil. Thomas explains that evil is not a thing in itself but it is the lacking of a thing. The word we frequently use when discussing this nature of evil is the word privation. Evil is the privation of God’s goodness. It’s the lack of God.
There are different kinds of evil but when it comes to actual sin we are focusing on moral evil. Moral evil is the non-conformance with God’s eternal law and correct reason. So when the free thinking and choosing creature which is us — remember that humans are the only creatures of God here on Earth that are endowed with intellect and will. So when humans who know God and His law deliberately refuse to obey God and His law, that’s when we have a moral evil.
And the decision is to refuse to obey. It is the act of actual sin. In every sinful act we have to consider two things according to Thomas. We have to consider the fundamental substance of the act, what was done or what is the action itself. And there are acts which are fundamentally evil. The act of murder is a good example of this. Murder is the intentional taking of innocent human life. There is no way for murder to be anything but morally evil. There’s no way to explain away murder. And the actual sin of murder, like any other actual sin, separates the person from God.
Some actual sins like the sin of murder are so serious that they totally separate the person from God, and he finds himself like Adam and Eve outside the garden: he finds himself outside the church. And that’s what we mean when we talk about a mortal sin. We have committed a sin sufficiently grave or serious that we are no longer connected to God; we have disconnected ourselves from God and his church. We are spiritually dead. And that’s why we go to the sacrament of reconciliation to be brought back into the right relationship with God and his church. So what leads to an actual sin is the act of choosing. And the choice is fundamentally to obey God’s will or to disobey God’s will. To walk with God like Adam and Eve before the Fall. Or to walk apart from God as they did after they were removed from the garden.
Sometimes an actual sin is an act that I commit; I do something. We call those sins of commission, which means I did something that is contrary to right reason informed by faith. For example, stealing somebody’s car is a positive act that is a sin of commission. Sometimes a sin is failure to do what is supposed to be done. Here, you have a sin of omission. I didn’t do what I was supposed to do. Whether it is a sin of commission or a sin of omission, at the heart of every sin is that act of the will where I chose to do something.
A good example of a sin of omission is not going to Mass on Sunday when I don’t have a good reason not to. I knew I was supposed to go and I chose not to do what I was supposed to do, and that’s a sin of omission. There are acts which are not as clear-cut as the act of murder in terms of their seriousness of the sin, which is why you hear the difference between mortal sins and venial sins. And this relates to the fact that some sins come from ignorance, from not really knowing. Sometimes they come from passion, when our emotions are overheated, sometimes from infirmity, when our wills are weakened in some way, and sometimes from malice, where we just want to do something evil. Actual sins don’t always have to be acts in the sense of being something you do. You can have sins of thought, mental sins, you can have sins of words where we say something. And of course you can have sins that are deeds where we do something that is sinful.
Every actual sin has an objective element and a subjective element. The objective elements of a sin are the object itself — that’s the deed that was done or the word that was spoken or the thought that was thought — and the circumstances in which those things happened. And as human persons, every act that we do has a subjective dimension too. The subjective elements are kind of what we were thinking as we were doing it.
It’s possible to have a sin where a sinful action happens but the person doing it isn’t fully aware that it’s a sin for whatever reason, and that’s ignorance. That makes it a material sin, according to St. Thomas. It rises to the level of a formal sin when the person doing it freely chooses to go against the law as understood by him in his conscience. So if perhaps in the dark in the parking lot I somehow stole another person’s car but thought it was mine or a car to be shared that would be a material sin because I did take another’s property, but it would really only be a formal sin if I took the car knowing that it was the property of somebody else.
Probably for most of us, the focus should be on these internal acts of the mind. Something can still be a sin even if I didn’t actually do it. If I thought about it, considered it, and wanted to do it, then I sinned. My intellect considered, and my will chose. Think of the Ten Commandments. There is a commandment that says we cannot steal something that belongs to somebody else. But there is also a commandment that says we cannot look at something that belongs to somebody else and desire it for ourselves. Thou shalt not steal, and thou shalt not covet. This is a great reminder for us how careful we must be when it comes to internal sins, the sins of our mind.
The importance of these internal sins is confirmed when we consider what are known as the capital sins: these are the sins of vainglory, avarice, gluttony, lust, sloth, envy, and wrath. Four of the seven do not really have a physical expression. Vainglory is a thinking kind of sin, as is avarice or greed, as is envy, as is wrath, or destructive anger. And the other three start in the mind before they are expressed with the body.
Sometimes it is hard to associate these old fashioned words with our modern lives, so this chart of the social media apps connected to the seven deadly sins is a pretty good tool to think about what those old words mean today.
As missionaries in our modern world, we most likely use some of these social media apps. And we can make the choice to step away from them if we cannot figure out how to use them in a better way. And they show us how some things are not sins until they get out of balance. Eating is good, when done with reason guiding our passions. Watching TV is not necessarily bad, unless we are bingeing on some show and not being productive when we have things to do. And these social media apps really convince us of the truth of the Church’s teaching on original sin and its wounds. I used to be on Twitter, and it is such an angry place.
Moral theologians have worked over the years to help us in our battle against sin by simplifying and re-presenting the consistent teaching of the Church so that we can more easily understand the nature of sin and how the Devil will work against us as he worked against Adam and Eve in the Garden.
St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Alphonsus Liguori wrote a great deal about moral theology, and they produced great lists and categories of sins, of vices and virtues. Sometimes the lists are so long and complex that we easily give up trying to work on our sins because there seem to be so many.
A Dominican priest, Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange, wrote a lot on moral theology in the 20th century, and he developed the idea of three root sins based on the writings of St. John in his First Letter. If the word concupiscence is too big, we can substitute the word “desire” and see how St. John and Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange are talking about the root sins of sensuality, of vanity, and of pride.
If you remember from the presentation last week, we are still targets for Satan even as we are missionaries for Christ. So, while we are out proclaiming the Good News, we have to be alert to the movements of the Evil One. Just as he had no creative power in the Garden of Eden, he has none here. He cannot make us do anything. He is a keen observer of what trips us, and he will arrange for us to face those temptations over and over again.
A great salesman reads the customer and figures out what product the customer might actually buy mostly by eliminating those products he has no interest in. The Devil works much like that. And that’s why we can focus on three root sins. For most of us, one of these three is the way the Devil gets us. And the better we understand what these mean, the better we can be alert to how the Devil might get us and bring us down to his level. It is harder to be a good missionary for Christ if we are wallowing in our root sin.
So I’m going to touch on each of these three root sins.
The root sin of sensuality is basically that I put my sense of self in things and feelings. I should get it from God, but instead I get it from stuff and feeling good. Many people who struggle with addiction of one kind or another will learn that their root sin is sensuality. If we use food to make us feel better, or eat when we are bored, that’s a sign. If we base our choices on whether or not it might be hard to do, that’s another indicator. If we can only do good or be productive when we feel like it, that’s another indicator. The Devil whispers in our ear, “It’s too hard!” and “Eat this, or smoke this, or buy this, and you’ll feel a lot better.”
The root sin of vanity is basically that I put my sense of self in how other people react to me. I should get it from God, but instead I get it from people. We can see how destructive social media can be for people who struggle with vanity as their root sin. What people think of me becomes much too important to me. And I will abandon my principles to fit in and get along with others. I’m a bit fickle as a friend; you might be traded in for a new and better friend if I struggle with vanity. The Devil whispers in this person’s ear, “Look over there!” and “You need to be fashionable.” and “He just doesn’t get with the program, does he?”
The root sin of pride is basically that I put my sense of self in me. I am so awesome I don’t need God or anyone else to validate me. Two major ways we manifest pride are haughtiness and self-love. People who are fighting pride present as know-it-alls, arrogant jerks; they get asked “who put you in charge of everything?” And this is how the devil works on them: he presents them with people in their lives who are incompetent or insufficiently aware of my awesomeness.
If we have a good sense of how we might be tricked by the Devil, who Jesus called the “Father of Lies,” then we can learn how to fight off the Devil and be the missionaries we are called to be.
Each of the root sins has opposing virtues. These are habits and attitudes we can cultivate so that when the Devil attacks us through our root sin we are already in better shape to fight him off.
If we struggle with sensuality, then we can start working on learning to live without constant sensual rewards. The word discipline is also called ascesis, where we get the word asceticism from. We can work on learning how to go without, which is a powerful antidote to our inclination to need something to make us feel better.
If we struggle with vanity, then we need to stop looking at others for validation. Learning to accept ourselves as we truly are is a great way to begin to get free of vanity. We can learn to be less attached to responses or reactions from others, and just do what we think is right because we know God loves us more than any other human person could love us.
If we struggle with pride, then we can practice compassion and docility as antidotes to self-love and haughtiness. Putting ourselves in the place of others helps people fighting pride to see things from another’s perspective. And just accepting what comes, especially docility to the promptings of the Holy Spirit, makes us more patient.
All these tools help us be better people sent into the world to change the world by being Christ in the world.