“Original Sin Through Easter Eyes”

A different Lent, a special Lent no similar from the previous years.

There is something so subtle about the spiritual life that could bring one to the edge of terror and fear, but at the same time, deeply profound in the sense of strength it offers and the equanimity it assures. At night time, or early morning, I would wake up with the simple resolve: “I can walk on the water!”

Within one week, I happen to join a retreat and a 2-hour Lenten ritual of reconciliation. The Parable of the Prodigal Son both stood out in these two separate activities. Both activities were moving, guided by 2 holy priests, one a Diocesan clergy, and the other a Belgian missionary. I wondered what wounds have they struggled with in their lifetime of ministry to come to a point of some seductive simplicity in words, and honesty over the human condition, including the lies we “comfort” ourselves with, or shield with from the truth. They were truly God-sent this Lent.

During Lent, sin is handily a favorite retreat theme, its “blackness” seems as attractive as the red of poinsettias of Christmas. Ash Wednesday is a proof – churches simply overflow with ash-askers, some serious about its call for repentance, while most seem to view it as a mere initiation into the season. But then, the call to repentance will be shelved for a little while between Ash Wednesday and the week before the Holy Week. Like a TV soap opera, the Lenten drama resumes at its penultimate, then gets quite morbid, literally in some places, and in imageries in its ending. The long laundry list of sins get recycled Lent in and Lent out. The world, in most of its parts remain very violent and destructive – corruption, domestic violence, addictions and compulsions, genetic manipulations, wars, corporate greed, environmental destruction, intellectual arrogance! Whatever happens to the divine offer of a new world order out of the death and resurrection of the Christ? Perhaps, the message has really never been understood and accepted except by the saints in our midst. Perhaps, we have never really understood who we are before these divine gifts? Perhaps, the way we understand sin, confession, repentance, Ash Wednesday, Holy Week, death have something to do with the way we receive the divine gifts. Or distort those. The Diocesan priest for example, began his emphasis on the meaning and significance of  confession not with “sins” but with some verses from the Deuteronomy 7:6-11, on God’s choice of us as a people peculiarly his own. Yes, this peculiarly chosen people sinned and keeps sinning. But somewhere, the sacrament of confession need not be turned into a washing machine, diluted with the many acts or intentions of sinning. The sin is the refusal to believe in this divine choice also known as Love and the sacrament is but a way to encounter again this Love. It was no coincidence that after the retreat’s confession, the next ritual of reconciliation I attended was more silent. We need more silent rituals of reconciliation where this Love in stillness is more audible. Articulating one’s list of sins may still be important at times for self-clarification but it could also hinder one from the transformative act of beholding this Love in silence through a minister. Grace often happens through one’s humble and repentant silence before this Forgiving Love, as humble as the prodigal son’s admission: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.”

I am currently reading and reflecting on James Alison‘s groundbreaking book The Joy of Being Wrong: Original Sin Through Easter Eyes. It is his published dissertation with an introduction by Sebastian Moore. The book speaks about who we are, and the kind of violence we do to ourselves and been projecting to God to radically miss the whole point of God’s offer of salvation and continues to offer. The book challenges our framework on sin, on original sin especially where we take God’s offer of salvation as a band-aid, turning our relationship with the Holy into escapades to our own cybercafe. Salvation is nothing but a pantry of what we only need and get what we want. Then relegate the pantry into some dark corners of the house until we need it again. No wonder, Alison argues, that we remain so involved in violence and lies and take death with ultimacy and continue to project it not only to human bodies but also to the life of bacteria and animal genes and minerals: humans-marked-unto-death. The original sin, its breed of sins including the often mislabeled concupiscence get recycled over and over once we keep missing the point of God’s death and resurrection in Jesus – which is that Jesus’ death was our sinful “congenital involvement with death” but turned our identity as humans-marked-unto-death into an unnecessary identity. With Jesus’ death and resurrection, God showed how indifferent God was over our compulsions and violence and lies and engagement with death; He had nothing to do with it! Alison is recasting the doctrine of original sin in this way:

The doctrine of original sin is the doctrine of the un-necessity of death. Its epistemological possibility is the discovery that the forgiveness of sins reaches further than the forgiveness of actions and intentions; it reaches into who we are as constituted in and by death.”

The resurrection of Jesus “reveals that death is not only a human reality, and one inflicted by sin, but that the human reality of death itself is capable of being forgiven.” The Resurrection is the greatest sign of God’s forgiveness, rectifying at the same time where we got it wrong about God and about ourselves – that death is but an accidental projection of all our fears and violent compulsions and rivalistic tendencies.

It is quite impossible to capture Alison’s insights using French thinker Rene Girard’s anthropological framework in a blog post. But sufficed it to say here that our traditional understanding of original sin and salvation as God’s patchwork over our human desires turn sinful and violent truly needs recasting.

The book was published in 1998 and seems inaccessible in the Philippines. Almost a decade ago, I read what to me is a Holy Week applications of Alison’s insights by the Irish Columban missionary Fr. Brendan Lovett in his 69-paged book published in 1999- It’s Not Over Yet: Christological Reflections on Holy Week. Fr. Lovett’s book remains to me the most profound reflection on Holy Week, especially on the theme of human violence written in the country. I inquire again from the Claretian Publications and it”s price remains affordable at 109 pesos. Fr. Lovett was a Lonergan Fellow in Boston College, got his doctorate from Munster University, specialized in linguistic analysis, and a longtime missionary and mentor for many Filipinos.

The Lenten journey continues…

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