Darkness, blindness, sin, and the light of Christ

Listen to mp3 file
4th Sunday of Lent, Year A: April 3, 2011
1 Sam 16:1, 6-7, 10-13; Ps 23; Eph 5:8-14; John 9:1-41

You were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. What a great sentence! And what a cause for joy, on this Laetare Sunday when we rejoice as we remember the joyful purpose and goal for which we engage in Lenten penance: to attain to the resurrection and reach heavenly glory.

You were once darkness—and what does someone who is darkness look like? What did you look like when you were darkness? Well, first of all, you looked like a newborn baby. That’s what you looked like when you were darkness.

But how can that be? So little and cute and precious? But as we heard in the first reading: “Do not judge from appearance … Not as man sees does God see, because man sees the appearance but the LORD looks into the heart.”

But how could a little baby be darkness? Aren’t we all born as children of God? No! No, we aren’t. We are born as creatures of God, made in God’s image and loved by him, yet stained with the original sin of our first parents. Only when we are baptized into Christ is that original sin washed away; only when we are baptized into Christ do we receive adoption as adopted sons and daughters of God, sharing in the sonship of the only-Begotten Son, sharing in his own divine life.

And so an unbaptized baby is darkness. And so is an unbaptized child, or teenager, or adult. Indeed, their darkness is worse, because, after reaching the age of reason at about 7, they add their own personal sin to the stain of original sin. And so the darkness is intensified.

Baptism is important. What happens at that font is incredibly powerful. It is the application of the joy and power of Christ’s resurrection at Easter. By that water, Christ saves and transforms. Parents should bring their babies to baptism right away—preparing for it even before the birth.

And in that baptism, after the essential moment of the baptizing, the parents are given a candle, lit from the Easter candle, and told:

This light is entrusted to you to be kept burning brightly. This child of yours has been enlightened by Christ. He is to walk always as a child of the light. May he keep the flame of faith alive in his heart.

The parents are told this because it is quite possible for the child to put out that flame of faith.

Mortal sin is called “mortal” because it kills the life of grace in the soul. The indelible character, or imprint, of baptism on the soul remains forever; but mortal sin “results in the loss of charity and the privation of sanctifying grace, that is, of the state of grace.” [CCC 1861] Mortal sin—which is objectively grave or serious matter, committed with full knowledge and complete consent—kills the life of grace in the soul, and plunges you into darkness again.

What then is to be done? Baptism cannot be repeated. How can the light be restored? The answer is confession; the sacrament of penance and reconciliation. And I urge you to make frequent use of this sacrament—I recommend once a month as a general target. If you haven’t been to confession since the beginning of Lent—come on a Wednesday evening of Lent to this parish or any parish in the metro area. “The Light is On for You.” And next week, Tuesday, April 12, we will hold our Lenten penance service.

In our Gospel reading, we saw two kinds of blindness.

  • There is the physical blindness of the man blind from birth; and heard how Jesus opened his eyes so that he was able to see.
  • But then there is the moral blindness of the Pharisees, who are so insistent that Jesus is not from God that not even the demonstrated miracle of the healed blind man, right before their eyes, can make them see the truth.

How is this possible? How could someone become so morally blind that a physically blind man is better able to perceive the truth than they?

One of my moral theology professors offered something that he nicknamed “the Devil’s 12-step program.” It draws on a list of sins against the Holy Spirit made by St. Augustine, but puts them in order and adds some more steps to make a complete series of 12 downward steps into hell. It explains the Pharisees’ blindness; and it serves as a warning light to us if we recognize ourselves somewhere on this path.

  1. It starts simply with imperfection: when our emotions pull us in directions that are contrary to the truth we perceive in faith. This could come from simple immaturity; or from the leftover effects of original sin. Imperfection is not sin in itself…
  2. …but it does open the door for temptation, when these imperfections draw our attention to sinful possibilities and make them seem appealing.
  3. Once we do fall into venial or smaller sin,
    • we may rationalize our sins, telling ourselves they aren’t really wrong, so that we can stop feeling uncomfortable about them.
    • We may tell ourselves that venial sins don’t really matter, since they won’t send us to hell.
    • Sin seems less horrible; an intimate relationship with God seems less desirable.
  4. Our venial sins may open possibilities to us for mortal or serious sin; and they may put us into tight spots from which mortal sin offers an escape. And so often we step on down to mortal sin—especially a mortal sin of weakness, which we quickly repent of.
  5. But then comes impenitence: committing a mortal sin that we intend to remain in, practicing it regularly or even living in it. We are willing to remain guilty indefinitely.
  6. What if it then occurs to us to repent anyway? If we push away this impulse to repent—as if it were a temptation—then we have reached obduracy, or the hardening of the heart.
  7. We may tell ourselves that we don’t really need to repent: God will not send us to hell, but will save us, one way or another, without our ever cooperating with his grace. This is presumption.
  8. But after a while, presumption may give way to despair, as the false confidence seeps away and we think, “I’m no longer able to repent. God has cut me off from grace.”
  9. Faced with the contradiction between believing in God but having no hope of ever reconciling with him, we may reject the truth that we know—we may cease to believe.
  10. Yet, even when we have rejected faith rejected, a painful residue of it may remain—leading us to resent others who have faith and envy the grace that they enjoy.
  11. And so at last we reach final impenitence. St. James writes in his letter [1:15]: “Then desire conceives and brings forth sin, and when sin reaches maturity it gives birth to death.”
  12. And so we reach the final destination of the Devil’s 12 Steps: hell.

Imperfection, temptation, venial sin, mortal sin, impenitence, obduracy, presumption, despair, rejecting known truth, envying the grace others enjoy, final impenitence, and hell. This is how the Pharisees could be blinder than a blind man. And this is a terrible downward staircase that many people you know may be on; perhaps you yourself, present at this Mass today.

But remember that there is tremendous, powerful hope. The sacrament of confession is there to lance that festering wound; to expose what is there to Christ’s light and love; to restore sanctifying grace to your soul; to bring the spiritually dead back to life again.

“Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will give you light.”

Please, if it has been more than a month, if it has been a year, if it has been many years: come to confession. Don’t quibble about whether you have committed any mortal sins; come. Don’t delay; come. Everything can be forgiven, if you are ready to turn away from it. Everything can be healed and strengthened; come. Wednesday evenings starting at 6:30; Tuesday April 12; Saturday afternoons at 3:30; after most weekday Masses that I celebrate; and always by appointment or just by request.

“Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will give you light.” “I am the light of the world,” our Lord said. You were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light.


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