Friday, 15 April 2011

Psalm 129/2 - Introduction continued

Belles Heures of Jean de France,
duc de Berry, folio 71v*

And now on with another installment of my series on the penitential psalms.  Today, the second part of my introduction to the sixth of the penitential psalms, Psalm 129.

I said in the first part of this introduction to Psalm 129 that its essential theme is God’s willingness to forgive even the gravest sins, and I want to provide some material that develops that theme a little more today.

God is always willing to forgive

The idea that there are some sins that cannot be forgiven, or that there is a limit to the number of times a particular sin can be forgiven is one of those recurrent heresies that still gains traction in our time.

One even hears articulated the idea that repenting at times of personal disaster, even on the deathbed, is somehow wrong or too late - somehow a cowardly act going contrary to how one has lived one's life.

This is a horrendous error, for the very opposite is true!

Bad times are exactly when we should turn back to God.  It takes courage to renounce a lifetime of error.  And it takes a gift of a great grace from God.

Indeed, Pope St Leo the Great used this psalm to instruct a bishop that absolution should not be withheld from those who express penitence, no matter what the circumstance, or what doubts there may be around the case:

“...because we cannot place limits to God’s mercy nor fix times for Him with whom true conversion suffers no delay of forgiveness, as says God’s Spirit by the prophet, “when thou hast turned and lamented, then shalt thou be saved;” and elsewhere, “Declare thou thy iniquities beforehand, that thou may’st be justified ;” and again, “For with the Lord there is mercy, and with Him is plenteous redemption.” And so in dispensing God’s gifts we must not be hard, nor neglect the tears and groans of self-accusers, seeing that we believe the very feeling of penitence springs from the inspiration of God, as says the Apostle, “lest perchance God will give them repentance that they may recover themselves from the snares of the devil, by whom they are held captive at his will..”

In such cases there may well be temporal punishment left to be worked off either in this world or in purgatory.  But as the psalm sets out, redemption will come, as surely as the dawn comes after the night.

Reverent awe

And God's merciful forgiveness, expressed in verses 3-4, should in turn invoke in us a sense of reverent awe, as Pope Benedict XVI has pointed out:

“It is significant that reverent awe, a sentiment in which respect and love are mingled, is not born from punishment but from forgiveness. Rather than sparking his anger, God's generous and disarming magnanimity must kindle in us a holy reverence. Indeed, God is not an inexorable sovereign who condemns the guilty but a loving father whom we must love, not for fear of punishment, but for his kindness, quick to forgive.”

God’s forgiveness brings additional gifts

Fresco of the annunciation to St Zachariah,
Pope Benedict XVI concluded his catechesis on this psalm with some commentary from St Ambrose on the benefits that can flow from absolution from our sins, and I commend it to you also:

“Let us choose St Ambrose's words: in his writings he often recalled the reasons that motivated him to invoke pardon from God. "We have a good Lord who wants to forgive everyone", he recalled in his Treatise on Penance, and he added: "If you want to be justified, confess your fault: a humble confession of sins untangles the knot of faults.... You see with what hope of forgiveness you are impelled to make your confession" (2, 6, 40-41: Sancti Ambrosii Episcopi Mediolanensis Opera [SAEMO], XVII, Milan-Rome, 1982, p. 253). In the Exposition of the Gospel according to Luke, repeating the same invitation, the Bishop of Milan expressed his wonder at the gifts that God added to his forgiveness: "You see how good God is and ready to pardon sins: not only does he give back everything he had taken away, but he also grants unhoped for gifts". Zechariah, John the Baptist's father, lost the ability to speak because he did not believe the angel, but subsequently, in pardoning him, God granted him the gift of prophecy in the hymn of the Benedictus: "The one who could not speak now prophesies", St Ambrose said, adding that "it is one of the greatest graces of the Lord, that those who have denied him should confess belief in him. Therefore, no one should lose trust, no one should despair of the divine reward, even if previous sins cause him remorse. God can change his opinion if you can make amends for your sin" (2, 33: SAEMO, XI, Milan-Rome, 1978, p. 175).”

Tomorrow, on to the last of the penitential psalms, Psalm 142.  In the meantime, enjoy this setting of the psalm for your meditation.

*Belles Heures of Jean de France, duc de Berry, 1405–1408/9. Herman, Paul, and Jean de Limbourg (Franco-Netherlandish, active in France by 1399–1416). French; Made in Paris. Ink, tempera, and gold leaf on vellum; 9 3/8 x 6 5/8 in. (23.8 x 16.8 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Cloisters Collection, 1954 (54.1.1).


R J said...

"The idea that there are some sins that cannot be forgiven, or that there is a limit to the number of times a particular sin can be forgiven is one of those recurrent heresies that still gains traction in our time."

To put it mildly, I am no theological expert; but is not the sin against the Holy Ghost regarded as actually unforgivable, among non-Catholic Christians as well as within Catholic doctrine? St Thomas Aquinas, I note, describes it as unpardonable:

Kate said...


I'm glad you asked because this is an important issue.

In fact both St Thomas and more importantly (since it reflects magisterial teaching!) the Catechism of the Catholic Church make it quite clear that such sins can in fact be given where there is repentance.

First, the Catechism.

Pargraph 982 says: "There is no offense, however serious, that the Church cannot forgive. “There is no one, however wicked and guilty, who may not confidently hope for forgiveness, provided his repentance is honest. Christ who died for all men desires that in his Church the gates of forgiveness should always be open to anyone who turns away from sin."

How then do we account for the various passages of Scripture on blasphemy against the Holy Ghost? Paragraph 1864 of the Catechism explains:

1864 "Therefore I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven." There are no limits to the mercy of God, but anyone who deliberately refuses to accept his mercy by repenting, rejects the forgiveness of his sins and the salvation offered by the Holy Spirit. Such hardness of heart can lead to final impenitence and eternal loss."

The key then is repentance, or refusal to repent.

St Thomas looks at the Scriptural passages and explains how the idea of unpardonable sins can be understood, essentially suggesting that someone who commits such a sin is likely to be so hard of heart that he is likely to be impenitent until death. But he concludes by explaining that through God's mercy - the grant of a kind of miracle in fact - it is yet possible for someone guilty of such a sin to repent:

"...This does not, however, close the way of forgiveness and healing to an all-powerful and merciful God, Who, sometimes, by a miracle, so to speak, restores spiritual health to such men…We should despair of no man in this life, considering God's omnipotence and mercy." (ST II/III, qu 14 art 3)

The key point to remember is that Our Lord put no limit on the power of the keys when he instituted the sacrament of confession. So anyone who thinks they may have committed a sin against the Holy Ghost should certainly go to confession immediately.