One of the graces that I have here at the parish is that whenever I go to parish meetings, we always pray through the Gospel for the coming Sunday and discuss it. The Spirit works through the community, and more often than not, I’ll start thinking about the readings in a different light than I might have all by myself. This week I met on Monday with the finance committee, and so as we prayed through this Gospel, I had my finance committee thinking cap on. So my first thought was, well, the place where Jesus is meeting is too small by far, so we’re going to have to initiate a building campaign, and that’s going to be a lot of work. The second thought was, great, they’ve cut a hole in the roof and now we have to pay to have that fixed! I did not share those thoughts out loud and, thankfully, the Spirit was working in the folks on the committee, who expressed much more pious thoughts!
There’s a lot of paralysis going on in these readings. In the first reading, it’s the whole nation of Israel that is paralyzed. They are in captivity in Babylon, and their oppression is pretty cruel. They longed for God to come and rid them of their exile, as he had when they were slaves in Egypt. Where are God’s mercies of the past? When will their exile come to an end? Isaiah speaks to them words of consolation today. God will not just lead them back to their land, making a way through the desert and a river through the wasteland. But he is also doing something new: he will deal with the root cause of their paralysis: sin. It was sin that led them into slavery in Egypt, it was sin that led them to captivity in Babylon. So if they are to be truly freed, truly healed of their paralysis, they need to be forgiven of their sins. And it is only God who can do that, so he takes the initiative to do that new thing among them. Praise God!
The paralysis in the Gospel is more literal, but also works on the figurative level here too. The center of attention might seem to be the paralytic, but really it’s Jesus. Jesus has the crowds captivated, preaching words that have them spellbound. So much so, that he can hardly move, for all the crowds around him! Seeing this, the paralytic’s friends take bold action: they haul him up onto the roof, make a hole in it, and lower him down, right in the midst of Jesus and his hearers. You have to imagine that the crowds are on the edge of their seats – except there probably wasn’t room for any chairs – and they were just waiting with eager anticipation to see what Jesus would do now. Who could heal a paralytic? Jesus speaks curious words: “Child, your sins are forgiven.” – What on earth can that mean? Who has the audacity to say he can forgive sins? Why doesn’t he just heal the man as the man had hoped for?
But Jesus is doing something new too. These last several weeks, we have been hearing about Jesus healing all sorts of people, including a leper just last week. And through it all, he’s been telling them to keep it quiet – not that they did! – because he wasn’t healing people just be known as a wonder worker. He’s trying to get at the root cause of the people’s paralysis, the real disease and not just the symptom. And that disease is, of course, sin. “Child, your sins are forgiven.” Those are the words he speaks to the paralytic, because he insists on healing the man from the inside out. The physical paralysis was nothing, the really paralyzing thing was sin. Sin paralyzes us all from time to time. It affects our prayer life, our vocation, our relationships. It holds us back, it keeps us from moving on to what God intends for us. When we are paralyzed by sin, nothing good can come to us, nothing good can even be seen in us or by us. Sin is quite literally deadly. And so, yeah, Jesus can heal a man’s paralysis, but whoa, he can even heal the sinfulness of the whole human family. Now that’s a wonder worker! Healing the world of sin was the whole reason for Jesus being here in the first place. Praise God!
We are here today on the precipice of a new season of the Church year. This Wednesday is the beginning of our Lent, the beginning of that time of year when we all have the opportunity to turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel. It’s a forty-ish day retreat for us; we can take stock of those sins that have held us back, and bring them to our Jesus who came that they might be blotted out. And we know that, as good as our lives tend to be, as faithful as we try to be, we have, on occasion, blown it, both individually and as a human family. We have missed opportunities to be of service. We have held on to grudges and past hurts. We have broken relationships through the distractions of lust in its many forms. We have taken what belongs to others, maybe not giving an honest day’s work for our pay, or taking credit for work that was not ours. We have stolen from the poor, either by not making an effort to reach out to them, or by wasting resources. We have deprived God of the worship due to him, either by missing Mass for yet another soccer game, or by being inattentive at Mass or forgetting our prayers. We have taken the lives of others by allowing abortion to continue its pandemic spread through the world, or by not caring for the sick, or by allowing racial bigotry to go unchallenged. We have dishonored our parents and ancestors by allowing the elderly to die alone, or by allowing the cost of health care to be beyond what people can pay. You get the idea – our personal and communal sins have been myriad, and they have paralyzed us for far too long.
But our Lent is a gift to us. Our ashes remind us that we will not live forever, so the time to open ourselves up to change is now. We will have these days to concentrate on fasting, almsgiving and prayer. This is a gift, but also a responsibility; it is likewise sinful to ignore the opportunity completely. Our fasting might be food, or it might be something else that consumes us, like television or the internet. Our almsgiving can consist of any or all of the traditional ways of time, talent, and treasure. Our prayer can be communal or personal, devotional or reflective, whatever it is that is going to lead us face-to-face with Christ. This is also a time to rid ourselves of the sin that binds us, to hear those wonderful words spoken to us as well: “Child, your sins are forgiven.” We have so many opportunities planned for the Sacrament of Penance, that if you cannot find a time to go to Confession, you’re just not looking hard enough!
But if it’s the length of time since you last received that sacrament that is paralyzing you, then you need to hear what I always tell people about the Sacrament of Penance: Don’t let anything stop you. When you go into the confessional, tell the priest: “Father it’s been years since my last confession, and I might need some help to do this right.” If he doesn’t welcome you back and fall all over himself trying to help you make a good confession, you have my permission to get up and leave and go find a priest who is more welcoming. Because it is my job to help you make a good confession, it is my job to make sure the experience is meaningful for you, it is my job to make you want to come back, and I take that very seriously. I know that Fr. Ted does too.
The important thing to remember in all of this is that you cannot let anything stop you from being healed of what paralyzes you. If need be, make a hole in the roof so that you can end up right at the feet of Jesus. Lent is our gift from God, that opportunity that he initiates to do something new among us. Let’s not ever turn away from that gift. Our staff had a retreat day this week, and in it we heard these words from the Rule of St. Benedict which I think tell us everything we should learn from today’s Liturgy of the Word: “Let no one follow what he thinks profitable to himself, but rather that which is profitable to another; let them show unto each other all … charity with a chaste love. Let them fear God, … and prefer nothing whatever to Christ, and may He bring us all together to life everlasting. Amen.”