Lo, I will send you
Elijah, the prophet,
Before the day of the LORD comes,
the great and terrible day,
To turn the hearts of the fathers to their children,
and the hearts of the children to their fathers,
Lest I come and strike
the land with doom.
Christians think of themselves as blessed and indeed our faith comes with many privileges; they are too many to be counted; they stretch to infinity. One of the most blessed is the gift of penance, the awareness of our sinfulness.
You can tell it’s a most sacred and wonderful gift because it’s unpopular and demanding. Penance draws our attention to the small print of Baptism, “Lest I come and strike the land with doom.” We really should pay attention to any warning tag on any gift, and this warning in particular. Ignorance is neither bliss nor excuse.
The Jewish people of Jesus’ time appreciated the gift of penance. When John the Baptist appeared in the Jordan River, presumably by one of its fords, and announced to passersby the imminence of God’s kingdom, they came out to him in droves. They wanted to hear his preaching; they invited his accusations of sin; they eagerly waded into the muddy water for a “baptism of repentance.”
We don’t have to go so far to hear about our own sins. The Internet, the television and radio routinely track us to our homes, cars and work to remind us of our economic, social, medical and educational failures. They frequently complain about our trashing the environment. And then they analyze the roots of our chronic problems; tell us what we should do; and describe the obstacles to reform. They assume that if we see the problem and know what to do about it, we’ll fix it.
So why don’t we make the actual changes?
Saint Augustine recognized the problem in his debate with Pelagius. The British ascetic taught that Jesus had released us from the guilt of Original Sin and given us a fresh, new start; and we should take it from there. All we needed was the resolve to live better lives. Saint Augustine was more familiar with human weakness; he knew that we cannot save ourselves even after we have been saved.
Modern Pelagianism says we can save ourselves by education. When we recognize the evils of smoking, pollution, violence against women and children, and so forth, we will change. These reforms need only the authority of better thinking, and perhaps some tinkering with "The System." With the right formulas we can track evil to its source and destroy it. As if....
The gift of the Jews to Christians, as we find in both Testaments, is penance. Through prayer and the sacraments the Lord reveals our sins. Loved one, friends and enemies join the fun. (Sometimes our enemies prove to be our best friends as they say what our friends dare not speak.) Occasionally we are astonished by the enormity of our sins; and then we hear the threat, “….lest I come and strike the land with doom.”
Realizing that we cannot save ourselves, we beg God to change our hearts. With Ezekiel, we pray he will give us hearts of flesh for our stony hearts. In that moment our dry cisterns becomes springs of living water and we do impossible things: we apologize, we forgive, we make atonement, we surrender obnoxious habits, we live fully and without fear even with sickness and the proximity of death.