|Antonello da Messina, Mary of the Annunciation (detail) (1475)|
If you could “get away with” any sin or sins that you wanted, what would you do? That is, imagine that God could somehow be distracted, that you didn’t have to worry about sin offending Him or being punished. Or alternatively, imagine that God didn’t exist: what would you do?
You don’t have to tell me, obviously, but I want you to think about these questions seriously. Because while I don’t need to know your answers, you should. Why? Because those are the areas that you’re still holding on to sins.
Think about it. Sins aren’t sinful just because God randomly decided to prohibit a lot of behaviors, as if He’s some sort of cosmic killjoy or divine bureaucrat with nothing better to do than regulate for the sake of regulating. Sins are sinful because they’re harmful to us, to our neighbor, and to Christ.
Sometimes, this is obvious: intuitively, we can see that a person (or religion, or society) that thinks murder is okay is headed for disaster. Other times, it’s not as obvious. People are great at convincing themselves that pornography or adultery or drunkenness or divorce are basically harmless, and it isn’t until they’re miserably unhappy and don’t know why that they (hopefully) start to reconsider.
All of this is closely tied to the Immaculate Conception, which we celebrate today. By the grace of God, Mary was freed from original sin. And one of the common objections to this doctrine is that it meant Mary didn’t have free will.
This gets it entirely backwards, as I’ve mentioned before. Jesus says as much in John 8:34, “Truly, truly, I say to you, every one who commits sin is a slave to sin.” It’s sin that enslaves, not grace. For a long time (although there are now questions about the extent to which this is true), there was a belief that child born to crack-addicted mothers were themselves more or less addicted, or at least seriously inclined towards addiction.
Whether that’s true or not of drugs, it’s certainly true of sin. We’re born with original sin, meaning that we’ve got an inclination to want sin, even though it’s bad for us. Sometimes, we have to fight to do good, or at least to avoid sin. The difference between us and the Virgin Mary is that she was born “clean,” so to speak. She still could have sinned, but she was more free to say yes to God. And that’s what freedom really is: the ability to do the right thing.
So why do we miss this? Because we have a distorted view of freedom (in which freedom just means having a lot of choices, for the sake of having a lot of choices), and because we believe we’re not truly free if we’re following God. Pope Benedict XVI discussed this in his first Immaculate Conception homily as pope, back in 2005:
Lorenzo Di Credi, The Annunciation (1485)
(Notice the bottom panel, in which Di Credi contrasts
Mary’s Yes to God with Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Paradise)
The human being does not trust God. Tempted by the serpent, he harbours the suspicion that in the end, God takes something away from his life, that God is a rival who curtails our freedom and that we will be fully human only when we have cast him aside; in brief, that only in this way can we fully achieve our freedom.The human being lives in the suspicion that God’s love creates a dependence and that he must rid himself of this dependency if he is to be fully himself. Man does not want to receive his existence and the fullness of his life from God. [….]Dear brothers and sisters, if we sincerely reflect about ourselves and our history, we have to say that with this narrative is described not only the history of the beginning but the history of all times, and that we all carry within us a drop of the poison of that way of thinking, illustrated by the images in the Book of Genesis.We call this drop of poison “original sin”. Precisely on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, we have a lurking suspicion that a person who does not sin must really be basically boring and that something is missing from his life: the dramatic dimension of being autonomous; that the freedom to say no, to descend into the shadows of sin and to want to do things on one’s own is part of being truly human; that only then can we make the most of all the vastness and depth of our being men and women, of being truly ourselves; that we should put this freedom to the test, even in opposition to God, in order to become, in reality, fully ourselves.In a word, we think that evil is basically good, we think that we need it, at least a little, in order to experience the fullness of being. We think that Mephistopheles – the tempter – is right when he says he is the power “that always wants evil and always does good” (J.W. von Goethe, Faust I, 3). We think that a little bargaining with evil, keeping for oneself a little freedom against God, is basically a good thing, perhaps even necessary.If we look, however, at the world that surrounds us we can see that this is not so; in other words, that evil is always poisonous, does not uplift human beings but degrades and humiliates them. It does not make them any the greater, purer or wealthier, but harms and belittles them.