Jim Cogley: Reflections on the Readings, Tues 8 Aug – Mon 14 Aug 2023

Tue 8th Aug: Exploring Original Sin

What is this mysterious reality we call Original Sin that has been the source of such misunderstanding and untold suffering down through the ages? Older baptismal records show that children were usually baptised almost immediately after birth, and often before the mother was fit to be present, out of fear of the child dying, and not going to heaven. This also gave rise to the common practice that if the child was weak at birth, the midwife usually performed ‘conditional baptism.’ This was a throwback to St Augustine, who may have been a great man, but who through his particular formulation of this doctrine was responsible for truly great suffering that lasted through the centuries. It was he who taught that children were born in a state of original sin, and that it was only through Baptism that this could be removed, thereby restoring the dignity of a child of God.

Wed 9th Aug: Baptism – What difference?

Often while baptising a child, I ask myself a very serious question. Is what I am doing going to make any difference in this child’s life? Is it going to be like a vaccine that prevents the child from catching the virus we call sin? Will it prevent that child from taking the wrong path in life and making bad choices? The answer is clearly ‘no’, it certainly doesn’t work that way. There have been so many tyrants and monsters, Hitler and Stalin included, who could produce baptismal certs. The only valid answer I can come up with is that it certainly has the potential to make an incredible difference, but the chances are that it will have no effect whatsoever except in so far as the child is influenced by the parents’ faith. Long term, it can only make a difference, if, when that child grows up, he or she comes to realise and accept what it means to be baptised and choose to live as a child of God.

Thurs 10th Aug: Original Sin – The Evidence

One thing for sure, ‘Original Sin’ is a reality and we don’t need to scratch too far beneath the surface of any human being to find ample evidence for it. Even when we carefully examine the lives of the greatest saints we will see that each one had ‘another’ side that may never have found expression in unacceptable behaviours, but was much more evident in judgements and attitudes. We can call this our ‘shadow side’ where every human being is like the Moon and born with a dark side. Even in souls that brilliantly reflect the Divine Light we need never be surprised to find that the dark side co-exists and sometimes expresses itself in ways that are shocking and unbelievable. We have a perception that God can only use souls that are all light, while the opposite seems to be the case. History has shown that while God looks for sincerity of heart, He often uses individuals who are deeply flawed to accomplish his work. In fact, the flaws and the cracks are precisely what he uses the most, to keep that person humble, and allow His light to shine through.

Fri 11th Aug: Blaming and Original Sin

The roots of Original Sin obviously go back to the fall from innocence by Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Here we find a broader understanding of this ‘sin’ that is no less prevalent to this day. The text says that after Adam had eaten from the tree with the forbidden fruit God confronted Adam and asked what had he done? Adam gave an evasive reply saying that ‘It wasn’t me Lord, it was the woman you put with me, she tempted me and I ate’. Not only was he denying responsibility, he was indirectly blaming God for his role in sending him a helpmate. Next, he confronted Eve, and again she reneged responsibility and made the excuse that the serpent had tempted her, and so she ate. It was after this confrontation, and complete failure to take responsibility, that both were banished from the Garden. Surely this shows an important and less obvious aspect of Original Sin; that it is related to the innate tendency to blame, make excuses, and a failure to take responsibility for our actions.

Sat 12th Aug: Baptism – Travelling Light

To appreciate what it means to be baptised is to choose to journey through life knowing that my guilt is taken care of; all I have to do is acknowledge my wrongdoing and ask forgiveness. Christ has carried my guilt, so I don’t have to. Failure to forgive myself is both pride and a form of dishonour to the Lord who has paid the price. In fact, Baptism is a reminder that before I have ever sinned, I have already been forgiven. So as a child of God, a burden of unworthiness is not something that I need to be carrying, since I live not under God’s frown but in His favour. To put it another way, it is our baptismal right as a baptised child of God to walk this life without any trace of guilt or unworthiness. It is to each of us, and not just to Christ, that God says, ‘You are my beloved child and in you I am well pleased.’

Sun 13th Aug: Walking on Water

That Gospel story is one that has more to teach us about faith than any other. It begins with Jesus sending the disciples across to the other side of the lake of Galilee while he goes up into the hills to pray. While he is praying, they are panicking, a storm has arisen, and they fear for their lives. This passage captures the essence of Faith and reflects the innumerable crossings and ‘the need to get to the other side’, that are part of our life journey.

Had they known that he was praying for them just then would they have been so worried? I don’t think so.

Had they seen the bigger picture and realised that they represented the future of the early church and that Jesus had a vested interest in their safety would they not have been more at peace. I think that they would.

Had they remembered that their lives were in alignment with Gods will and that it was at Jesus command that they were where they were would they not have felt peaceful and secure even in the midst of the storm. Jesus had said go to the other side, he didn’t say that there wasn’t going to be any storm.

The storm is an apt metaphor for many times in our lives. A time when we feel so trapped in our past that we think we don’t have a future. Feeling so overwhelmed with burdens in the present that we feel you can’t cope. Or we might feel so crippled with a fear of the future perhaps in relation to our health or the welfare of a loved one that we can’t even get a full night’s sleep.

Like the disciples in the storm, we so easily get caught up in its urgency and ferocity that we forget the important issue, that Jesus is praying for our safety and has a vested interest in our survival. As long as we have placed our lives in His care then we can be assured that he cares for us even more than we care for ourselves. That’s the bigger picture and as someone said to me during the week so many spend so much time watching TV that they have completely lost sight of that bigger picture and increasing the size of the screen makes no difference.

The disciples rowed hard into the night against a strong headwind, as the waves got higher their fears rose higher still. We are told that it was in the fourth watch that things started to happen. I suspect that at that point they were so exhausted that they simply gave up. Giving up trying to save ourselves and surrendering to God and his saving power go hand in hand. In AA the phrase used is ‘Let go and let God.’ It was then that Jesus came walking on the water, a visible sign that he was master of the wind and the waves. The intense struggle that so often characterises our lives does not result in the divine assurance that all will be well. Only surrender brings that about. Inevitably we have to come to the end of our struggle before we give in and then divine grace takes over and we feel as if we are being carried.

As bad as they wanted to see Jesus at that particular time the disciples still cried out in fear. In reply Jesus gave his characteristic response in the face of fear. Courage it is I. As always Peter was the impetuous one who literally jumped in feet first. Lord if it is you bid me to come across the water. Come said Jesus. This is where we see both faith and its counterpart in action. Looking to Jesus, Peter exercised the faith that sustained him above the waves. Looking to the waves he exercised another kind of faith that also had power, this time to sink him. This kind of negative faith we call fear. Where faith can sustain us fear can and will drown us. It is like faith in reverse.

There is a word in English for a sentence that is formed using the letters of a word, it is called an acronym. A useful acronym for understanding FAITH is Fantastic Adventure in Trusting Him. For FEAR it could be Fantasy Experienced As Real. Fear always presents the worst possible scenario. It projects us into the future, deprives us of the strength we need in the here and now and if we don’t deal with it radically will ultimately determine our fate.

So, the daily choice for all of us is really very simple:

Have faith in our fears and allow our circumstances to be greater than we are and overwhelm us or have faith in the Lord and in his power to save and sustain us. Faith looks up while Fear looks down and like Peter, where we choose to look is all important.

Mon 14th Aug: Baptism – Original Blessings

I tend to think of baptism not as the removal of original sin but the sacramental reminder of the wonder and magnificence of who we really are as a child of God. It makes sense to see it as a reminder and celebration more of Original Blessings than Original sin. I had a neighbour who used to ask people what might appear a strange question. She would ask, ‘How comfortable are you with your own magnificence?’ Understandably people would laugh because deep down we’re not, but it is still the key question in relation to baptism. In infant baptism before a child can do anything to earn or deserve to be loved, at the point where he or she can only drink, blurb and excrete, he is still the recipient of unconditional love. This is precisely the Good News, that at our very worst, when we deserve it the least, we are loved the most, and all because of nothing that we are, but because of who God is.

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One Comment

  1. Sean O'Conaill says:

    CCC 1257: “The Lord himself affirms that Baptism is necessary for salvation.”

    John 3:5 is then cited by the CCC as the authority for this statement – but this is Jesus’ dialogue with Nicodemus affirming the importance of being ‘born from above’ – which Nicodemus clearly interprets as an adult experience, a ‘second’ birth.

    “In all truth I tell you, no one can enter the Kingdom of God without being born through water and the Holy Spirit; what is born of human nature is human; what is born of the Spirit is Spirit.”

    There seems to be serious confusion here. Jesus is clearly speaking there of a conscious event that can occur in adulthood, not in infancy. (Whenever baptism is described in the NT it is always happening to adults, never children.) Moreover, Jesus is speaking not of the possibility of a heaven AFTER this life but of a kingdom that is, he insists, ‘at hand’, i.e. on offer right away for those who can truly believe in him. Surely he is referring to what Catholicism now calls ‘baptism in the Spirit’, advocated for converted adults by e.g. Fr Ranieri Cantalamessa, preacher to the papal household?


    Why does the Catechism appear to conflate post-death salvation in ‘Heaven’ and ‘the kingdom of God’, the experience of God’s presence here and now – and deploy a saying of Jesus about the need to be ‘born again’ to justify infant baptism?

    As for ‘original sin’, don’t we need to remember that Genesis is a Hebrew text and that Jews do not hold to this idea of ‘original sin’?

    What Genesis describes is certainly a human frailty, a habit of ‘invidious comparison’ that tends towards envy of those who appear to have greater power or ‘being’ than we do – and envy of God above all. As the philosopher Alain de Botton has observed we seem to suffer from a congenital problem of status anxiety – recurrent doubt as to our own value and importance – the root of what René Girard describes as ‘mimetic desire’. That is also surely the root of the problem of deflecting responsibility for our own mistakes out of fear of shame – with the result that others get blamed and suffer, as Jim says.

    The theologian James Alison offers a Girardian ‘take’ on original sin in ‘The Joy of Being Wrong’, but that is heavily academic and technical. What else is happening these times to thinking on ‘Original Sin’? The unexpected ‘retirement’ of teaching on ‘Limbo’ in 2017 surely speaks of a need for reclarification – and CCC 1257 is a conspicuous ‘sitting duck’.

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