In his immortal tale, A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens describes how Scrooge was visited by the ghost of his former business partner Jacob Marley. Marley's ghost did not come unencumbered, however. A long chain around his middle was made of cash-boxes, ledgers, deeds and heavy purses made of steel.
"I wear the chain I forged in life," said the ghost. "I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it."
Like Marley's ghost, each of us has forged our own chains. Our chains may be like his or they may be made up of old videotapes, cast-iron footballs, cases of liquor, credit cards or other modern idols we adore.
Our chains would be heavy indeed if there were no way to break our shackles. Like Marley's ghost, we would be condemned to eternal enslavement unless there were the forgiveness of sins. The Catechism of the Catholic Church quotes St. Augustine as saying, "Were there no forgiveness of sins in the church, there would be no hope of life to come or eternal liberation" (no. 983). It's that stark.
The catechism deals with forgiveness in several places, most notably in its accounts of the sacraments of baptism and penance and of the Lord's Prayer. In this brief section, it highlights the belief in forgiveness as central to Christian living.
Believing in forgiveness, of course, entails belief both in sin and in the need for those sins to be forgiven. The first of these beliefs challenges one of the key moral phenomena in the Western world at the end of the 20th century -- a sharp decline in the awareness of sin.
The social sciences have increased our awareness that one's actions can be the result of factors in one's environment, personality makeup or upbringing. That expanded awareness helps us understand the factors that may reduce one's guilt in performing acts which objectively violate moral law. One may have done the wrong thing but not be morally guilty simply because one is out of control.
However, this awareness of our conditioning has also given people a ready excuse for immoral actions. It is easier to escape personal responsibility for one's actions if one can say, for example, that they were the result of an unhappy home life.
Along with this decrease in a sense of personal responsibility for one's actions has come a decline in belief that there are moral limits to behavior. The rise of individualism has meant that objective standards have given way to "conscience." Not the conscience of traditional morality, to be sure, but rather the view that one can arbitrarily decide, without regard to any standards, whether an action is morally justified.
When moral limits are ignored and when personal responsibility for action is explained away, there is little reason left to talk about sin. And those who are without sin don't need forgiveness.
So when we say, "I believe in the forgiveness of sins," we are going against the grain. We are saying that there is sin and that it is not a peripheral part of human living. Sin is central. And, without forgiveness, each of us would be like Marley's ghost, condemned to forever drag around the fetters of our own making.
In societies where sin is taken seriously, forgiveness can be hard to come by. Centuries-old hurts are still remembered and felt in the Balkans, Northern Ireland and other lands less technologically advanced than Canada and the U.S. People really are in chains due to a lack of forgiveness. To us, this is puzzling. "Why don't people just forgive and forget?" we ask.
While the failure to seek reconciliation is far from laudable, it does betray an awareness that sin is more than a transient occurrence, an event which can be washed away by tomorrow's rain. The failure of others to forgive may force us to ask ourselves whether we are forgiving sins or condoning them.
"Sin is before all else an offence against God" (no. 1440) and "only God forgives sins" (no. 1441). We can ask God to heal our hurts and to use us as instruments of forgiveness. But forgiveness itself is something beyond human capability.
The good news is that "Christ . . . desires that in his church the gates of forgiveness should always be open to anyone who turns away from sin" (no. 982). Sin has always been present. But Christ, through the paschal mystery, has done the impossible -- he has made forgiveness accessible to all God's people.
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