Stephen Colbert, host of The Late Show on CBS, remarks often about his Catholic faith. His religious background has given rise to one of the humorous sketches on the show. From time to time he does a sketch called “Midnight Confessions.” The sketch begins with his disclaimer, “I don’t know if these are actually sins, but I feel really bad about them.”
Among the putative sins that have comprised his “confessions” are the following. “Often, I take a penny, but I’ve never left a penny. I floss twice a year, only when my dentist does it for me. I don’t have a service dog, but I bought a vest online so that I could take my dog to the movies with me. Whenever I see a baby I say, ‘What a cute baby,’ but what I’m really thinking is, ‘If that wasn’t a baby, it would be a really ugly adult.’ I like to go to the “Y” because working out next to the elderly makes me feel strong.”
These are funny because they’re petty, shallow and selfish. They are not serious sins because they do no real harm to anyone. They are excellent examples of the difference between sin and shame, a difference often overlooked.
The first reading this Sunday is the second creation story in the book of Genesis. This creation story is quite different from the one in the first chapter of the book. The first creation story is organized around the six day work week followed in urban settings in ancient Israel. God worked for six days to create the world, then “he rested on the seventh day from all the work he had undertaken.” (Genesis 2:2) In urban Hebrew culture the six day work week of merchants and artisans was seen as the source of sustenance (for city dwellers).
The second creation story represents the tradition of rural Hebrew religion. In rural Hebrew culture the source of sustenance was the earth. In this second creation story God made plants and animals out of the earth. Eventually, God made human beings out of the earth, as well. Our first reading begins immediately after this version of creation affirms that everything required to sustain human life was provided by God, and was close at hand.
In keeping with the theme of Lent, we have the part of the story that explains the origin of sin. According to the story, despite having been given everything necessary to sustain a full and happy life, the first humans were not satisfied with God’s gifts. Their cupidity and hubris led them to break faith with God by doing the one thing that God had forbidden. (Genesis 3:2-3) The consequence of their disobedience was that their lives would be tragically burdened by suffering, labor and eventually, death. (Genesis 3:16-19)
This selection from Genesis serves as an introduction to Matthew’s narrative of Jesus’ temptation. The three temptations in Matthew’s Gospel portray Jesus as willingly accepting the burdens of being human: he goes hungry, faces death and accepts the limitations inherent in existence in this world. (Matthew 4:1-10)
Jesus’ bore the universal human burdens of suffering and eventual death, but did not succumb to the human tendency toward faithlessness (as Adam and Eve had done). Jesus’ suffering and death is also an illustration of the difference between sin and shame.
There are many things that can lead to shame. The acts listed in Stephen Colbert’s “Midnight Confessions” are examples of things that can make a person feel, in Colbert’s words, “really bad.” However, not everything that makes us feel bad is a sin, and even more tragically, not every sin makes us feel bad. Most people feel regret, shame or something similar about the consequences of normal human weakness. Sufferings, burdens and death are lamentable, but not sinful. On the other hand, it is just as common to overlook culpability for the sinful actions that we enjoy doing.
The penitential practices of Lent are intended to give us a clearer understanding of our sins, and a greater capacity to forgive human weakness in ourselves and others. Sinfulness is not measured in terms of guilt or shame, but rather in terms of faithlessness. Adam and Eve sinned because they broke faith with God. Jesus’ death was judged to be an act of righteousness because he remained faithful until the end. (Romans 5:18)
The small acts of faithfulness that comprise keeping the spiritual disciplines of Lent create a microcosm of virtue. Limited fasting and penance do not generate great virtue, but provide examples against which to measure all of our actions. Faithfulness in the relatively minor things that comprise Lent looks exactly like faithfulness in the really significant things in life. Lent, then, is an opportunity to practice on a small scale the faithfulness that should be the hallmark of our lives.
Lent also offers a remedy for our sins. Sadly, no one is ever as faithful and trustworthy as they want to be, intend to be or ought to be. All of us sin by breaking faith with God and neighbor. Lent leads to the remedy for all sin: the Resurrection of Jesus. Jesus is the one man who was faithful without fault. When our personal faithfulness fails us, we have the possibility of redemption by believing in Jesus’ faithfulness and righteousness.
We live at a time and in a place where everything and everyone is judged by the most superficial and subjective of standards. The normal weaknesses and failings of others are often judged as sinful infractions against our personal sense of well being. Then, having judged the normal limitations of others as sinful, we judge our own limitations as shameful. Lent is a long overdue reminder that human limitations are not necessarily sinful, and that our judgments are often skewed by the very limitations we judge so harshly.
Breaking faith with God or neighbor is objectively sinful, not because of the feelings it creates in us, but because betrayal disrupts the possibility of having normal, healthy relationships. This Lenten season of repentance is worth entering into with our whole hearts, because doing so allows us to see our lack of faith with greater clarity, and to treat others with greater charity.