For many of us the season of Lent poses a special problem. Why? Because Lent is supposed to be a time of spiritual renewal by means of repentance of our sins, a repentance expressed by an increased vigilance to avoid sin, a greater self-discipline and a deeper sorrow for our past sins. But the problem with many of us is precisely that we are not aware of any serious sins in our lives. After all, few of us have assassinated an archbishop recently, robbed a bank, burned down a church, took a hostage, kidnapped a child, perpetrated an aggravated assault, committed perjury in a court of law or stolen a beggar’s alms bowl. And so, all this Lenten insistence on sin and repentance seems to be, if not entirely pointless, at least greatly exaggerated. Repentance for what? For our little white lies, our innocent gossip, our occasional eating sprees or sexual fantasies? Do such moral misdemeanors deserve 40 days of penance? The answer to that question is obvious. If Lent were only about sins of commission, then indeed it would seem a rather extreme measure for redress.
However, our problem here is that we forget one thing. We forget that, often enough, our gravest sins are not sins of commission but sins of omission. We forget that, when we confess our sins at the beginning of Mass, we admit having sinned ‘through my own fault in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done and in what I have failed to do.’ This last expression should make us pause. To abstain from doing a good action can be a very serious matter. Think of the scene of the Last Judgment as pictured by Jesus. He says: ‘What you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me.’ (Mt 25:45) he is speaking only of sins of omission, yet these deserve the severest punishment.
Now what sin of omission is particularly serious and quite often on the conscience of many of us? The answer to that question might surprise you, yet it is suggested by today’s first and second readings. They both underline God’s kindness to us, the first reading, in his gifts of creation (here an abundant harvest) and the second reading, in his gift of salvation. In fact, the first reading even suggests what should be our response to God’s gifts and it prescribes a ritual ceremony of gratitude. ‘You shall make merry over all these good things which the Lord, your God, has given you.’
Now, in this connection we should all examine ourselves seriously: do we often thank God for all that we have: our very existence, our physical health, our psychological balance, our intelligence, our education, our family, our friends, our country, our Christian faith, and all the rest? Do we not sin by omission in this area of our lives: If we do, how often and how seriously do we sin?
Here, lest you might think I’m exaggerating matters, I will quote a Dominican priest, Fr Stan Parmisano, who writes in his book Testament:
‘I suspect,’ he says, ‘ the sin most committed and least confessed is that of ingratitude. Our examination of conscience should help us avoid this.’
Perhaps a good thing we can do at the beginning of this new Lent is to decide to concentrate during the next 40 days on the special area of sins of omission, the first of these being lack of gratitude towards God. During the next few weeks, let us seize every opportunity to thank God for all his gifts.
365 Days With the Lord Nil Guillemette SJ
‘What you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me.’