13 February 2013

On a God Who Loves Us Unconditionally

I picked up a book of sermons by Bl. John Henry Newman tonight and flipped to one entitled Christian Repentance, which I figured would be appropriate for an Ash Wednesday meditation.

Newman begins right off the bat with a very Catholic view of repentance (he was Anglican at the time): repentance as a continual process, not a fixed point in a man's life where he turns and begins to seek God.  "We are ever sinning, we must ever be renewing our sorrow and our purpose of obedience, repeating our confessions and our prayers for pardon."

This continual repentance is full and complete each time we ask for pardon -- this is why, even though we may confess the same sins over and over, we should not become discouraged, for we are always starting down the road to repentance and being continually converted with each confession of sins.

Newman next turns to an examination of the state of the penitent man.  Whereas in the Old Testament repentance was almost always accompanied by an offering either of physical things (burnt offerings) or spiritual sacrifices (cf Psalm 50: "Sacrificium Deo spiritus contribulatus; cor contritum et humiliatum, Deus, non despicies"), in the parable of the prodigal son, repentance consists of absolute surrender of one's entire being to God.  Thus, in this parable, the son returns to his father broken and submits himself entirely to his father:
Without knowing what will become of him, whether God will spare or not, merely with so much hope in his heart as not utterly to despair of pardon, still not looking merely to pardon as an end, but rather looking to the claims of the Benefactor whom he has offended, and smitten with shame, and the sense of his ingratitude, he must surrender himself to his lawful Sovereign.
In this, Jesus shows us what offerings are necessary in the New Covenant: our very selves.  And of course, in addition to these words, He lived this total self-sacrifice by offering himself as the perfect sacrifice for the expiation of our sins.

Total surrender of self really is the crux of the matter, and something that I pray for when I am feeling especially penitent: complete abandonment of myself, offering all that I am to God so that He may break me down and mold me into something better than I am.  Pope Benedict touched on this complete surrender of self in his homily today.  When reflecting on the words of the prophet Joel calling Israel to return to God "with all your heart", he notes that this "means from the very core of our thoughts and feelings, from the roots of our decisions, choices and actions, with a gesture of total and radical freedom."

And of course, despite the prodigal son's uncertainty as to whether his father would accept him back, we rejoice in the knowledge that our all-powerful, all-loving God will accept us back no matter what we have done as long as our contrition is sincere.  Rather than viewing this unconditional love as a license to do whatever we wish, knowing that God will forgive us, we should strive to be perfect, as our Heavenly Father is perfect, and continue down the lifelong road of repentance.

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