In ‘When Words prevent Prayer’ Maire Lawless critiques the 2011 missal not only for its language but for a particular emphasis: “It encourages a deep sense of sin which only reinforces the ego and is contrary to the message of Christ who came to say that our mistakes, our failings aren’t what matters but surrender to His transforming power is.”
The reluctance of clergy to tease out the scriptural nuances of ‘sin’ is hugely frustrating these times. Nevertheless I struggle to understand how ‘ego’ is necessarily reinforced by an emphasis on sin in the first sequence of the current Mass liturgy – whatever about the translation overall.
First, egotism is quite obviously the ‘Pride’ of the ‘Seven Deadly Sins’. How then will it be ‘reinforced’ by the references to sin and repentance in the penitential sequence? Does not the ego seek instead – and often find even in church – ‘reinforcement’ in flattery, the assurance of the minister that no radical ‘change of mind’ (repentance) is necessary, that our current prosperity is proof of God’s favour?
And if the message of Christ is indeed to be ‘transformative’ does that not imply a need for transformation? If the Mass liturgy is to begin instead with a new emphasis on our goodness as we are, and to end there as well, what can truly happen between that beginning and that end of the Mass ritual? What in the end will have been transformed?
As someone who consumes far too much depressing news – both secular and religious – I come to Mass these times remembering that despair is also ‘sinful’ and that I personally am in need of restorative transformation – a reminder of the Resurrection. Whatever it may lack, the ceremony, nevertheless will meet this need to some extent. I also remind myself that my church and social context has a similar need for transformation, and that the texts (if not the homily) are likely to address that need also. The ‘transformation glass’ at Mass will probably lack something but it will never be empty either.
Moreover, how could Mass celebrants know what other needs for transformation are present among the congregants – what family quarrels or abuses of power or resentments or unrecognised failings are represented there? How could it be sensible to assume that all had come in a state of complete spiritual health, and that the congregation will now be ready – unanimously – to forget about ‘sin’ and celebrate some transformation that has apparently already happened somewhere else?
And given the dialogical deficit of half-a-century in the Irish Church, and the typical perfunctory routinisation of the Irish Mass – as well as the shocks that are ongoing in our ‘perfect society’ of past decades – is it not obvious that our internal church relationships are in special need of transformation? If ‘clericalism’ is the root cause of our present ills, are not clericalism and lay clericalism also both sinful if they block honest dialogue and renewal?
What, furthermore, of the need to be reminded of the inter-connectivity of all ‘advanced societies’ nowadays – their reliance upon often unjust systems of production and investment and of the near impossibility of being uncomplicit altogether in their social and environmental costs? How many of us can be sure we have not been guilty of ‘sins of omission’ when it comes to political commitment to the tackling of these problems – or to the cause of refugees or the homeless?
Is not ‘Sin’ whatever prevents us humans from building the truly loving, vibrant communities that would ‘save’ those outside in need of love and community? Why should we abandon or reduce the occurrence of that word ‘sin’ at the start of Mass when no other will better serve to convey these stark realities? If it is a past obsession with the minutiae of sexual ‘sin’ that is considered reinforcing of the ego, don’t we simply need to re-understand rather than to abandon this word? Isn’t it fairly obvious that for the earliest Christians ‘sin’ was especially the source of the ruthless violence of the ancient world – and that we need to recover that understanding?
My own re-understanding in recent decades is that sin is essentially self-harm – and that all sin arises from a forgetting that all of us are already infinitely and equally loved. Were we all equally conscious, continuously and simultaneously, of that reality we would already be in the Kingdom of God. Who can say we are anywhere near that just now?
For all of our sins – the ‘whatever’ that keeps us trapped in egotism, aloofness, despondency, scandal, conflict and decline – untransformed – Kyrie Eleison.