Accentuate the Positive

Accentuate the Positive

Seventh Sunday of the Year. Fr Edmund Hill preaches on Christ’s words of forgiveness.

Behold, I am doing a new thing; I, I am he who blots out all your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins.

The new thing that God was doing was to bring back the exiles from Babylon. This, of course, was happening some two hundred years or so after the time of the great prophet Isaiah, who was prophesying in the reign of King Hezekiah of Judah, about 700 B.C. Here, in chapters forty onwards of the Book of Isaiah, we have prophecies from that second ‘Exodus from captivity’, the work of a nameless prophet who is nowadays known as ‘Deutero-Isaiah’.

As well as recalling, or echoing, the first Exodus from captivity in Egypt, the writer is also inspired to echo the first encounter of Moses with God on Mount Sinai, where God refused to tell Moses his name, but said he must be satisfied with knowing him as ‘I AM’.

Here he enlarges on that name to say that it includes, indeed signifies, the ‘blotting out of all your transgressions’.

This leads us straight into today’s Gospel — which of course is why the passage was chosen for today’s reading:

Which is easier, to say to the paralytic: ‘Your sins are forgiven’, or to say, ‘Rise, take up your pallet and walk’?

Jesus says both things — and both things happen, naturally enough, we can say, since we know that he, the ‘Son of Man’ as he calls himself, was also the Word made flesh, through whom all things were made.

Both things happen — and we as believers can see that each bears the same relationship to Jesus’s words, that of effect to cause. But of course the intention of Our Lord, obvious to his listeners, even to his critics the scribes, was that the second saying was to be taken as both sign and proof of the first.

It’s as easy to say one thing as to say the other — try it yourself! But when we say them, nothing happens. Our words are not creative; they don’t, of themselves, ‘effect what they signify’.

Oh, but what about the priest’s words in the confessional, ‘I absolve you from your sins?’? Surely they effect what they signify? Yes, because in fact it is the Lord who is speaking them. In the sacrament the priest is merely, so to speak, the Lord’s megaphone, so that his words may reach the penitent down two millennia.

And then the priest in the confessional doesn’t usually have the power to cure the penitent’s diseases; when he happens to be the Curé d’Ars, or Padre Pio, yes. Otherwise, no.

If Jesus’s words were the proof and sign of his power to forgive sins, the plight of the paralytic was a sign of sin. Contemporaries — very often ours as well as theirs — would have argued that it was a punishment for his sins. We have no business to think that, except insofar as we can unite our little pains and small doses of suffering with Christ’s pain and suffering, when he bore our sins on the tree.

Coming now to the second reading from 2 Corinthians, St Paul characteristically slides from a piece of self-justification in answer to some criticisms into a striking statement of profound doctrine about Jesus Christ. He himself wasn’t always shifting his ground with ‘Yes, yes’ and ‘No, no’ — saying Yes and No all in one breath. No, he was preaching Jesus Christ who was ‘not Yes and No, but in him it is always Yes. For all the promises of God find their Yes in him.’

God’s promises through the prophets are all fulfilled in Christ, in his death and resurrection for our salvation and in his teaching. He came only to save us, to buy us back from the punishment our sins have incurred, that we might have life. In no way did he come to supervise the infliction of that punishment on sinners.

In the words of a little ditty of my youth, twenty or thirty years ago (well, a bit past my youth, perhaps), he came to ‘Accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative.’ In him it is always Yes.

Readings: Isa 43:18-19,21-22,24,25 | 2 Cor 1:18-22 | Mark 2:1-12

fr. Edmund Hill was for many years a member of the Priory of St Michael, Archangel, Cambridge. He was a widely respected scholar of St Augustine, and consultant translator to the Augustinian Heritage Institute. He died on 11th November 2010. May he rest in peace.