Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. Lent is a period of 40 days (six weeks) where, through prayer, fasting, repentance, and self-denial, believers around the world prepare themselves for Holy Week and the death and resurrection of Jesus. It is during this time that, in our lives, thoughts, and prayers, we embody the disciple’s call of “let us go with Him, that we may die with Him” (Luke 11:16). But Lent isn’t merely about sin, brokenness, and the separation of death; rather, it is about healing, forgiveness, and restoration. With that said, there can be no forgiveness without repentance, no healing without acknowledging we are fractured, and no restoration without a felt separation. The prodigal son can never come home if he refuses to see that he no longer dwells there.
Today I am reflecting on the question, “What is sin?” Throughout my life I have been told that sin is the chasm that separates God and humanity. Though this is true, I do not think such statements go far enough. One of the most significant verses on humanities plight is Romans 3:23, “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” This glory is something God intends to share with His creatures (cf. John 17:22; Rom 8:18-21; 1 Cor 2:17). The “glory” is not simply an abstract moral ideal but, as taught in the Christian tradition, is found in the unending and transformative love of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (cf. John 17:5). In fact, when God created corporate humanity, He did so “in His image” as sharers in the transforming love of His glory (Gen 1:26-27; cf. Psalm 8). The glory of God, then, is deeply relational and intrinsic to our essential makeup.
When humanity fell short of God’s glory, it did not simply separate God from humanity, but fractured every relationship they had. Rather than harmonizing companionships and tasks, Adam was set at odds with his wife, his vocation, the soil under his feet, and, most poignantly, the very life given to him would culminate in death (Gen 3:17-19). Eve too would destroy the very familial relationships she was created to assist (Gen 3:16). The core of sin is anti-love. Rather than serving the other, it lusts after power and stoops conquer. Rather than giving, it steals; rather than bearing the truth, it lies; rather than fidelity, it forsakes. When sin has its way, humanity is divided, manipulative, and seething with anger. Rather than reflecting the eternal self-sacrifice of the Triune God, a sinful humanity selfishly and compulsively demands its own way, sacrificing others along the way. Sin keeps our lives from being good gifts to others around us.
The road of anti-love leads to the alienation of individuals. It is an orphaned and isolated existence that has burned the bridges that led to those that used to be called our family. It presumptuously labels and refuses to trust even those who prove to be trustworthy. After all attempts to dominate and subjugate those closest, the lonely existence, which has destroyed and distorted every relationship it has known, eventually ends in death… which stands as the climax of separation and non-relationality of humanity. Death is the logical end of lives fractured by anti-love and anti-relationships. In death, you no longer have companions but are forced into the great and mysterious outer darkness… alone. God, the Trinitarian embodiment of love, life, and beauty, hates sin not because He is a prude, but because sin ends in the systematic breakdown of the very connections we were made for; our connection with the beautiful God and with the human family He has made beautiful. Created in God’s image, sin strips us of what intrinsically makes us human, namely, the capacity for love, the ability to recognize beauty, and the undreamt hope of life.
Lent calls us to face the sin of our shared humanity; the sin that mars God’s image within us. It bids us to assess our thoughts, our actions, our beliefs, and our relationships. Within the Greek Orthodox tradition, the Sunday service before Lent is called “Forgiveness Sunday.” On this day, members of the congregation go to other members and ask for mercy for the sin that they have committed throughout the year. The members grant forgiveness to them and, in turn, ask for mercy also for themselves. Forgiveness Sunday, as practiced by the Orthodox tradition, portrays sin not so much as arbitrary offenses that erect a wall between God and man, but as the anti-love that sabotages our human faculties by robbing us of the ability for companionship, fidelity, or trust (whether with God or one another).
In the past when I have observed Lent, I focused primarily on how my sins have separated me from God. This year, I am focusing more on the actions, inaction, beliefs, and unbelief that have negatively affected me and those around me; the misdeeds that have impaired my ability to love and blinded my eyes to the beauty found in God and His good world. I invite you also to join me as we journey together in this season of Lent. May our shared hatred of sin and everything that mars God’s beauty render our lives as good gifts to a dying world.
in humility and repentance
we bring our failures in caring, helping, and loving,
we bring the pain we have caused others,
we bring the injustice in society of which we are a part,
to the transforming power of your grace.
Grant us the courage to accept the healing you offer
and to turn again toward the sunrise of your reign,
that we may walk with you in the promise of peace
you have willed for all the children of the earth,
and have made known to us in Christ Jesus. Amen.