Might have beens


The Readings for Tuesday in the 2nd Week of Lent (B2)

Projicite a vobis omnes praevaricationes vestras in quibus praevaricati estis, et facite vobis cor novum, et spiritum novum.
Cast away from you all your transgressions, by which you have transgressed, and make to yourselves a new heart, and a new spirit.

Forgiveness, absolution, is not a sign that things never happened. Make yourselves a new heart – but the damage has been done.

I had a boss once who was, shall we say, not the nicest of persons. He was a good coworker, but when he wanted to be a boss, he was a bad one of those. And he would yell and scream and all the things that one doesn’t want at work. So one day I yelled back. Which ended the conversation, and let us all retreat to our corners. But when I reached out to apologize for “my 50%” as they say, the response was “words can’t be unsaid… we can both apologize but the event happened.”

For us who believe in confession and absolution, we know it’s not like this at all, but some like to imagine it is: I can do anything I want and, as long as I go to confession, it’s ok! IN reality, even the smallest of sins changes things.

In the Byzantine rite, on the Sunday before Lent begins, there is a service called Forgiveness Vespers. During this service everyone from the Parish Priest on down to the youngest child asks forgiveness of everyone else in the parish with each person making prostrations to each. What should one do, you might wonder, if one has done nothing to ask forgiveness for? This is where Byzantine teaching underscores that all sin is communal. Even the sin I commit in private affects you in ways you don’t know. If I commit a sin at work that leaves me angry and hurt, maybe I bring that feeling to church with me. In turn, that feeling infects you in a discussion we had or rubs off on your spouse at coffee hour. When you and your spouse get into the car a fight ensues and fills out your car ride home with expletives and hurt feelings. You may never even know that it was my grumpy work emotions that got transferred to you by human sin.

Even if I have gone to confession for whatever happened at my job, the shockwaves of my sin, if you will, continue to ricochet off the walls of space and time. We are left needing to confess to each other  and ask each the other’s forgiveness. The things we have done hover like a small cloud in the pattern woven about us. Even if I go to confession I may never know how many folks I triggered.

Casting away all your transgressions as this Pre-Gospel antiphon asks of us may suddenly seem insurmountable. Things done have actually been done and even though the grace of confession is like the grace of a second baptism, washing away all the linked and balancing patterns may require far more effort on our parts that just saying I’m sorry. To borrow images from my D&D days, our new heart has rather a good few more experience points than the old one. We can be forgiven for Original Sin, but we actually have the Experience of Good and Evil in our life patterns. That cannot be undone.

So it is grace both to be able to move on as if nothing had happened, and yet to know something has happened – and to be able to take the good away. What can we learn?

Getting a new heart does not undo the way the old heart broke. Being forgiven our sins does not mean that we can backtrack and fix them.

Author: Huw Raphael

A Dominican Tertiary living in San Francisco, CA. He is almost 59. He feeds the homeless as a parochial almoner and is studying to be a Roman Catholic Deacon. He is learning modern Israeli Hebrew and enjoys cooking, keto, cats, long urban hikes, and SF Beer Week.

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