Reflection on the Readings for October 17, 2015
As it is the feast of Ignatius of Antioch, one of my son’s namesakes, I wanted to spend the entire reflection talking about him. But then I read the Gospel. So I’ll have to leave my focus on St. Ignatius of Antioch at a recommendation to check him out and give you these words from our 2nd Century brother, “It is not that I want merely to be called a Christian, but to actually be one. Yes, if I prove to be one, then I can have the name.” Right, on to the Gospel.
In the Gospel we find this pesky line, “but the one who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven.” Yikes! We’ve heard over and over again that “No sin is bigger than God’s mercy” that “God’s mercy endures forever” and “God’s love is unconditional.” Not only have I heard those lines I’ve said them, and not only have I said them, I believe them! I don’t think these are just cute mantras to help Christianity seem more appealing, I think they are at the heart of the Christian message. So what does it mean to say that there is an unforgivable sin? Is that not a vast contradiction? I don’t think so.
Here is why. Jesus does not say the one who blasphemes against the Spirit won’t be offered forgiveness. Instead he says that one will not be forgiven. This is not a divine instance of catty passive aggressive withholding, this is a refusal on the part of the recipient.
The Gospel of John clearly attributes the mission of forgiveness of sins with the work of the Holy Spirit when Jesus breathes on the Apostles in the upper room. This mean that for me to curse the Holy Spirt, to declare to the Spirit that “I want nothing to do with you” or “I have no need of you”, then I am denying the very one who works forgiveness in my life. The gift is held out before me and like a child in a temper tantrum I smack it from the hands offering me forgiveness and life.
Now I bring this up because without wrestling with this passage it either becomes a source of constant worry in the scrupulous mind or a blip verse that we just skip over while thinking, “My Jesus wouldn’t say that.” Both of those responses are not helpful, as an encounter with these words can make one question if the promises of God’s mercy are just a sales pitch. So, to close I want to practically look at this through the lens of Church teaching and the entire witness of the Bible.
The Church has looked at this passage and has identified blasphemy of the Holy Spirit as the two distorted extremes of Hope. Hope requires me to recognize that things aren’t the best they can be, and to confidently expect a better future not just in mind, but in word and deed. One distortion is to only see the current condition and see it as unconquerable and overwhelming. This is known as despair and in the individual believer’s life despair is generally described as refusing forgiveness because you don’t believe you can be forgiven. The second distortion is known as presumption. This can either take the form of rejecting mercy because you don’t think you have anything to be sorry for or refusing to repent because mercy will be owed to you in the end. These extremes are what the Catechism links to blasphemy of the Spirit. We know we should not fall into these extremes because the entirety of the Bible attests to the fact that we are wrestling against sin in this life, leaving us in conditions that God does not intend for us. But, God also has a future for us, and as a gift, we are being invited to cooperate in its manifestation and completion at the second coming.
So would Christ say those words? Yes, for who he is, bears witness to hope instead of despair or presumption. He is the righteous one. He is the reminder, the example, the conviction of what we are called to be. In the immensity of his love and depth of his humanity he helps us recognize that things aren’t prefect. But he is also the sign and testament of the Lord’s faithfulness and mercy, and not even the sins that brought about his death could overcome Him and the gift of life he offers through the resurrection. In Christ we find an unconquerable mercy, extended to us as invitation, not as an obligation. Despite our sins, we can be forgiven, but, because of them, we need to be.