14 July 2015

Sin/Death = Prison/Cemetery

Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St Dominic Church, NOLA

Are there any better symbols of sin and its consequences than the prison and the cemetery? Disobedience and death. In the first few lines from his novel, The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne brings his readers to witness a dreary gathering, a scene heavy with sin, punishment, and individual failure: “The founders of a new colony, whatever the Utopia of human virtue and happiness they might originally project, have invariably recognized it among their earliest necessities to allot a portion of the virgin soil as a cemetery, and another portion as the site of a prison.” Before the prison-door stand “a throng of bearded men, in sad-colored garments and gray, steeple-crowned hats. . .” This crowd of utopian worthies has “assembled in front of a wooden edifice, the door of which was heavily timbered with oak, and studded with iron spikes.” With the grim certainty of those who believe themselves innocent of sin, the earliest Bostonians wait outside their “ugly edifice” for the village's latest sinner to emerge, to show herself as one chastened by “the black flower of civilized society, a prison.” Hearing Jesus speak so disparagingly of the citizens of Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernuam, we might wonder if Hawthorne is right: despite our deepest desires for holiness, our most strenuous work to do the good, and the constant offer of redemption from the Father through His Son, we are doomed to reject the Holy Spirit's ministry among us and fill our prisons to breaking only to end up stocking our cemeteries for eternity. Is our story, as Hawthorne describes the life of Hester Prynne, “a tale of human frailty and sorrow”?

It would grossly irresponsible of us to see only the good in our hearts, ignoring the siren call of sin so that we could pretend innocence like those waiting outside Hester's prison-cell. We would be equally irresponsible if we were to make our lives into a paranoid vigil against every impulse, every natural instinct that comes with knowing the difference between good and evil. We give life to the same pride that brought down our first parents when we dwell obsessively on our failures in a quest for a purity that lies beyond our unaided reach. We can be pure. But not by ourselves. Though our prisons and cemeteries mark the consequences of human sin, Christ is the rose-bush flowering outside our cell-door, along side our tombstones. He is for us “some sweet moral blossom...that relieve[s] the darkening close of [our] tale...” But he is more than that: with us he is our holiest spirit; for us he is the only light in the darkness of our sin.

Jesus rails against the stubborn hearts of Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum, condemning their blindness to his mighty deeds and offer of salvation. We know that he is rejected as a heretic and demon by the temple, as a rebel by the empire, and possibly as a madman by most of those who hear him. The audacity of his message is too much to hear: the Father and I are one; He has sent me to you as your lamb of sacrifice; believe in me and you will be saved from sin and death. Too easy, too neat, too much for a disobedient heart that has grown muscular on the hard labor of chasing after salvation. There must be more to it than simple trust in God and love of neighbor!

How like the Psalmist we can be when we find ourselves doubting God's mercy: “I am sunk in the abysmal swamp where there is no foothold; I have reached the watery depths; the flood overwhelms me.” We may have escaped the prison, but the cemetery is not far away. Or is it? “But I pray to you, O Lord, for the time of your favor, O God! In your great kindness answer me with your constant help.” And how does the Lord answer us in our mire? “Turn to me in your need, and you will live.” Even as we indulge the folly of believing ourselves innocent, even as we grow more and more foolish in our refusal to turn our hearts to the mighty deeds of God, He says to us, “See, you lowly ones, and be glad; you who seek God, may your hearts revive! For the Lord hears the poor, and his own who are in bonds he spurns not.” This promise is Christ among us. No prison door remains locked. No tombstone stands against our eternal lives.

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