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Third Sunday of Repentance

The Third Sunday of Repentance

Basilica Hymn
Our God, have mercy on us
Turn to me and have mercy on me
For to you I pray
O God, have mercy on me, a sinner
Turn to the prayer of your servant, and to his supplication, O Lord my God
Pity me, O Lord, as you pitied the tax-collector; I cry out to you, O Lord: have mercy on me! O Answerer of the pleadings of those who ask him, O Opener of his door to those who knock on it: open to me, O Lord, the door of your mercy, and grant me forgiveness for my faults, for their memory terrifies me. Indeed I know and remember my iniquities, and I cannot be purified without your mercies. May you grant me cleansing, in your grace, from the foulness of the sins that have defiled me. O compassionate Savior, O Lord of all, glory to you!

Motivation

Christ makes it clear in the Sermon on the Mount that our motivation for our actions is observed and judged by God: when we give alms, pray or fast, we are not to do it in order to show off to others, for in that case “we have received our reward.” Our interior intention makes a difference to God. But this truth can be twisted, like so many truths, into something negative, something dark that the devil may use to trap us. We can begin making excuses for ourselves: “I shouldn’t go to church, because if I do I’ll be doing it for the wrong reason,” “I don’t want to turn to God or repent of my sins, because if I do it will be out of fear of hell and not out of love for him,” etc. There is practically nothing we can refuse to do on this ground.

This is, obviously, a corruption of Christ’s words. He said that when we give alms or pray or fast, that we should do it with the right intention. He was assuming that we DO these things. He never said NOT to do them, or to stop doing them, for any reason whatever. The actions themselves are good, no matter what our motivation, and it is better to do them than not to do them; Christ simply pointed out that it is best to do them for the right reasons.

Many times beginning with the wrong motivation can lead us down a path of conversion, where our intention becomes pure in the process. God can use even an imperfect intention for our spiritual benefit. In the nineteenth chapter of Luke, we have the account of a tax collector of short stature named Zacchaeus. It appears that his interest in seeing Jesus as he passed by was initially only curiosity, but Christ, pitying the poor sinner, used even this imperfect motivation to bring about a conversion of heart. Before Zacchaeus knew it, he had promised half of his possessions to the poor.

Running

The Gospel says that Zacchaeus “ran ahead” of the crowd and climbed a tree in order to see his Lord. What a virtuous run! How often is it that we run ahead of the crowd, away from the Lord, not in order to see him but in order to avoid him? We are afraid, oftentimes, both of seeing him and of being seen by him. Here our awareness of our guilt outweighs even our curiosity to see and to know this marvelous Messiah, and we avoid him at all costs. How sad it is to see a soul which is running from God! What a dark life which hides from the Light of the world! How starved and depraved do these souls become after a lifetime of running from the God who is in every place? The Psalmist cries out at one point, “Where can I hide from your spirit? Where can I flee from your face? If I climb to the heavens, you are there; if I lie down in Sheol, you are there. If I fly with the wings of the dawn and alight beyond the sea, even there your hand would guide me, your right hand hold me fast!” (Ps 139:7-10)

This all goes to show how painful it is to be aware of sin, how deep is the wound of guilt. Even more so, this shows how crafty the devil can be, since he is the one who darkens our minds to the point where we run with all our might away from the only Doctor who can truly heal our wounds. But run as we will, our Lord is always there, waiting only for his chance, for the moment we allow him in.

Contrast

What is it about Christ that makes it tempting to run away from him in our guilt? Why is it so much more painful to recall our sins in his light, and to be in his presence in our guilt? The answer is quite simple: he shows us who we truly are, and does not allow us to lie to ourselves any longer. By ourselves, we can very skillfully hide our sins in the shadowy corners of our soul, but when we come face to face with the Light, every shadow disappears and every speck of dust becomes visible. In other words, Christ shows us our guilt by his perfect innocence; he shows us our deceit by his honesty; he shows us how filthy we are by reminding us how pure we should be.

But it does not end there, with the shocking awareness of how far we have fallen. No, the Messiah came precisely to save us who are lost, to heal us who are sick, and to wash us who are dirty. It is never too late, it is never wrong, to turn to him, even with the “mixed motivation” of desperation or fear. Our kind Lord is always waiting, always ready to purify us of our sins:

Pity me, O Lord, as you pitied the tax-collector; I cry out to you, O Lord: have mercy on me! O Answerer of the pleadings of those who ask him, O Opener of his door to those who knock on it: open to me, O Lord, the door of your mercy, and grant me forgiveness for my faults, for their memory terrifies me. Indeed I know and remember my iniquities, and I cannot be purified without your mercies. May you grant me cleansing, in your grace, from the foulness of the sins that have defiled me. O compassionate Savior, O Lord of all, glory to you!