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Dear Friends,


This week’s story is not at all as simple and straightforward as it may seem.


I think that the John the Baptist character functions as an invitation to change our mind, as it were, change our mind and separate what we think from who is thinking.


We are told that John the Baptist preached “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Repentance is about our minds, what we think and how we think, it does not refer to atonement for sin but re-thinking sin.


I do not think what is going on here is an outer world confession of “sins,” behaviors, that we have been told are wrong or sinful as we might have in our modern experience of Confession.


I am not disparaging our modern-day interpretation of the Sacrament of Reconciliation but as there is no evidence of that practice in the New Testament we have to begin with the text and try and understand what it was intended to mean by Luke, the Gospel writer.


In this passage, sin is not a transgression against a law that has been taught to be offensive to God as we might understand sin. The Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, has zillions of lists of actions that had come, for one reason or another, had come to be considered offenses against God, and Jesus breaks a whole lot of laws, mostly on Sabbath Days compounding the so-called offense.


The Jesus in Luke’s Gospel is in conflict almost from the beginning with the Priests and Levites of the Law, so something new is going on here.


Re-thinking what we might mean as sin is the task that Jesus proposes because as Gabriel makes clear in Luke, this child to be born to Mary will be called Jesus, which means, “the salvation of the Lord,” which Matthew’s Gospel renders as, “he will save his people from their sins.”


So, what is it that Jesus will save us from and how will that happen?


Our minds have, as Father Rohlheiser suggested last week, the drive to hold tightly to the negatives in life. Our minds grab at hurts, remember tenaciously past offenses against us, cling to our consciousness of retribution and revenge like flies in honey.


Our memories make available to us real and perceived hurts far more quickly and far more easily than good deeds done to us, kind words spoken to us, kindnesses shared.


What Luke is offering here is a pathway out of that trap, not an easy path but a path, nonetheless.


The negativity that undermines our happiness can take all kinds of forms, all manner of distortion most especially of our self- understanding, our self-esteem. We need self-forgiveness, but we don’t know how to do that because we don’t really understand the inner workings of sin.


There is a subtle working of the mind, but when we have been hurt or slighted unless we are very, very careful we, in turn, will hurt and will slight. Our mind tells us that “giving as good as we have gotten” is the path forward.


Now, a most dangerous consequence of being sinned against is that, somehow, our mind convinces us that we deserve it, we earned it. We did or did not do something that caused us to be hurt.


When this happens people either way too easily forgive who hurt them and set themselves up to be a punching bag, literally or metaphorically or they bury the shame and the insults and pretend that they did not happen.


Either way, the “sin” lurks at the edges of our consciousness ready to pounce when we least expect it and this can do great damage to everyone. It is the person who does this that is likely to act out terrible destruction in irrational displays of violence.


The condition of chronically being at war, making killing a form of employment albeit in the military, turning young people into perpetrators of “sanctioned” human destruction has terrible consequences in our midst, as we see daily.


300,00 veterans of the recent war making suffer from PTSD, one active duty serviceman a month commits suicide, domestic violence, ruined marriages, all kinds of suffering rooted in unforgiven sin.


Quite frankly, I think much of what we call entertainment or recreation is repressed violence that is given permission to be accepted as legitimate when it is in reality a distortion and a deceit.


Many video games, certainly football as it is played today, and aspects of other, so called, sports, are nothing but collective negativity projected on otherwise innocent people by terribly damaged individuals who have been hurt and violated many times in many ways.


You don’t get to be a college or professional athlete these days, given the money at stake, without taking in an awful lot of other people’s aggression, usually from a person called, a coach.


Like most things really evil, we hardly notice it because it is so normal, such a part of our ordinary lives, banal, but, so, so subtle lurking in the shadows of our minds.


The sexual abuse of young people is a pandemic, crossing all socio/economic/education/religious categories and groups because it can so easily be gotten away with.


Even now with what may be hyper-awareness and sensitivity, to such kinds of behavior, legions of children and young people are being abused in their own homes by family members, by trusted coaches and trainers, by friends, by employers, by bosses, by colleagues.


This is a crucial developmental task of separating what our minds focus on and our deepest and truest self actually is but most people are never told or taught that they are separate from their thoughts and feelings as powerful as they may be that is why John the Baptist and Jesus in Luke’s Gospel are two steps in a process, why John defers to Jesus, why John has to come first.


I want to emphasize that, the possibility of separating what we are thinking from our self that is actually doing the thinking. John the Baptist calls for a moratorium from obsessional thinking and tries to teach us to be mindful of our self not our thoughts.


As I understand this text, it is a pre-requisite for us to detach ourselves from the negatives that our minds tenaciously attach themselves to. And embrace the idea that we are forgiven by God no matter what we have done and are, in fact, a beloved child.


This is a very, very difficult undertaking, one that we hardly ever accomplish once and for all but might have little moments of respite now and then and when we have those respites, we encounter Christ.




Father Niblick