I wonder if you have had this experience: once in awhile, something that I say in the liturgy just leaps off the page and grabs me. It’s almost as if I’d never really read or heard it before. This happened to me on the first Sunday of Lent as I lifted up the chalice and repeated the words of Jesus, “This is my Blood of the New Covenant, which is shed for you, and for many, for the remission of sins.”
This stuck out because after serving “Rite I” parishes for the first four years of my priesthood, it’s already taken a decade for me to get used to saying “for the forgiveness of sins” at the proper place in the Rite II Eucharistic prayers. But when my parish shifted to the traditional language during Lent, the word “remission” went boldface in my brain as I read it out loud. Then on Monday, I noticed it again as I prayed the morning Office: “The Almighty and merciful Lord grant you absolution and remission of all your sins.”
There it was again — remission.
What might the Spirit speak to us through this word that’s left the vernacular and our modern prayers? What can its more technical meaning offer to us as a gift?
We now use “remission” when speaking of dread disease, such as cancer. We might say, “My cancer has been in remission for three years,” or “I’m out of remission and back in treatment.” As I thought about the medical use of the word, a door opened to my understanding of its theological meaning and how “remission” is necessarily different from absolution and cure.
“Absolution” regards the forgiveness of sins that have occurred in the past. The fact that absolution’s object(s) lay in the past is proven by the reaction we would have if a parishioner or one of our children asked for absolution for something they were about to do. In the Name of Christ, the priest pronounces past sins as dead and having no more effect. They are washed away like dirt from a wound so that it can begin to heal. But our absolution is certainly not a “cure” from sin, for we know that we will sin again. St. John reminds us, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” We are still wounded. Even when washed, we still need to be healed.
I experience some sorts of sins as viruses that infect from outside. They are alien and come from this world to assault my moral will and infect it. Like a weakened cell wall, my will is rendered permeable by insecurity, immaturity, or simple fatigue. When I am run down, I seem to “catch” temper tantrums, let my eye linger over the magazines in the grocery check-out lane, or send nasty emails much more easily. A good night’s sleep, confession, and apologies where needed are usually able to “fight off” such sins in a few days.
There are some spiritual viruses to which I don’t seem vulnerable, while others I catch regularly when they go around. Unhappily, there are sins that assail the soul and cause more damage than a temporary fever of thoughtless cruelty or prurience. We rightly pray for deliverance from such evil and the alien wickedness sown by the Evil One.
But the sins from which I ask remission are not foreign bodies. They are all too “homegrown.”
Cancer cells don’t cause fevers and immune reactions precisely because they are our cells. They take the natural process of replication that leads to health and regeneration and run amok with it. Cancer is growth out of control and out of place. The tumor presses on necessary, healthy tissues or starves them, supplanting or killing them with its disordered desire to trespass wholeness’ bounds.
This is how I experience many of my sins, such as when my self-confidence grows recklessly and metastasizes into pride and self-assertion, pressing on my ability to love the other as myself and transforming my desire to serve into a desire to be appreciated. Or when my teaching gift replicates amok into prolix bombast and a love for the sound of my own voice. Or when my extroversion and “Hey howdy” temperament makes me look over the shoulder of someone who just needs me to wait and listen for a moment.
I’m sure those who know me well could provide many other examples. Unlike viruses, which seem opportunistic and may truly be cleared from our bodies, these homegrown, natural sins lurk like an undetected cancer, ready to grow uncontrollably and fatally if alien treatment — a love that is not my own but God’s — is not infused. Sometimes they run in families or are predictable given childhood exposures. Other times they are tragically idiopathic.
Spiritually speaking, we will never be “cancer free.” We will not be “cured” from sin — cancerous or viral — until the general resurrection, when we are made perfect by the burning, refining, healing fire of the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless, we may take heart in sin’s remission: in its functional absence, and in our relative spiritual health and our ability to love each other and forgive each other, despite the fact that we fall short of God’s glory and will eventually suffer the penalty of sins in our body. We can be thankful — we should be thankful — and even take pleasure in our good days, punctuated as they are by the inevitable bad ones.
To say that we receive the remission of our sins means that Christ, through his grace, has healed us of sin’s destructive power and given us the strength to serve him — for today. It acknowledges that sin is still in us and will take malignant shape eventually, but that we may have confidence in the Great Physician’s power to heal us again and again. It is a promise that if we continue to seek treatment from Jesus in Word and Sacrament, our sins will not metastasize and take over our personalities and souls.
Ask any cancer survivor: remission is something to celebrate. It’s real. It’s powerful. It is a future. It is newness of life. It’s the best news we can get on this side of Easter. And it is what our loving Lord most desires to give us on a daily basis until that Great Day when we are cured and set free from sin once and for all.
The featured image is “Cancer cell” by Flickr user Michaela33. It is licensed under Creative Commons.