Fourth Sunday of Lent

Dominica IV in Quadragesima C

Safe Haven Sunday

31 March 2019

The very first line of the first reading is what got my attention for a homily topic today.  Listen again to God’s word to Joshua in the first reading: “Today I have removed the reproach of Egypt from you.”  The setting of the first reading is that the Israelites are at the end of their 40-year desert wanderings.  They are about to observe the Passover.  And they are just about to take Jericho, the first city they conquer as they finally enter the Promised Land.  What is this reproach of Egypt?  It is that Israel no longer bears the identifying mark of belonging to God, the mark of circumcision.  Going back to earlier verses you learn that all the males of Israel at the time they left Egypt had been circumcised according to God’s command for the covenant.  But as might be understandable with a nomadic people, fleeing under duress, the important religious practice of circumcision had ceased in the desert, most likely because only the basic things of survival were getting attention.  As the original generation of fleeing Israelites died in the desert, the next generation no longer bore that physical covenant mark of their belonging to God and the unmistakable reminder of their identity.  They certainly couldn’t observe the Passover without this mark, without first entering God’s covenant, and they couldn’t enter the Promised Land if not initiated into God’s people by the covenant sign of circumcision.


By bringing the people at last to the entrance to the Promised Land and ordering circumcision, the Lord God then speaks the line that caught my attention: “Today I have removed the reproach of Egypt from you.”  What do we make of this word “reproach”?  I checked other language editions of the Bible and it is clear that the meaning of reproach is that God removed “shame, disgrace, or blame.”  And so, reminding the Israelites that they belong to Him and insisting on their bearing the physical mark of their belonging, God says, “Today I have removed the shame of Egypt from you.”

What I want to emphasize here, and what I think this line illustrates, is the difference between objective sin and the punishment we deserve for sin versus the subjective impact, the harm, and the effects of sin on us.  We are accustomed in the Church’s moral teaching to understand the distinction of the gravity of sins.  As the First Letter of St. John says, while all sin is sin (1 Jn. 4:16-17), and therefore all sin is offensive to God, there is a distinction between the gravity of a sin that deals spiritual death to the soul (called mortal sin), versus the sin that brings injury but not death (called venial sin).  Digging deeper into the moral theology of the Church, there is more to sin than the objective matter of its gravity and the removal of guilt and punishment by God’s mercy.  There is a subjective dimension to sin.  Quite distinct from having been forgiven of sin in baptism or confession, there can be psychological factors which require the need for deeper and ongoing healing of the effects of sin.  When God speaks of “reproach” I think this can be said to highlight the subjective matter of sin, its ripple effects, how it impacts us.  The reproach, the shame of our sin highlights more than just the objective fact of sin, but more precisely the ideas about ourselves, the messages about ourselves, that we take from the fact of our sins.

To live in the freedom of the children of God it is important for us to be aware of the impact of shame, disgrace, and blame.  The scriptural lesson of “reproach” fits very providentially with this weekend’s observance across the Archdiocese of “Safe Haven Sunday.”  Archbishop Coakley is providing us this observance to bring into the light the very difficult topic of pornography, how it enslaves us, how it impacts even our children, and how the shame of that struggle can keep someone locked in darkness and falling backward in the journey of holiness.  While the focus this weekend is the danger of explicit material and equipping parents to guard children, the truth is that this notion of reproach and shame can well be applied to any sin of our lives.  Think of your biggest struggle or habit of sin, your biggest area of regret.  Hopefully you have confessed that as you should, or it has been removed by baptism if you were baptized later in life.  But, an honest person likely also notices with certain sins an ongoing impact, a weakness, a place of darkness where shame and disgrace exist quite apart from the fact of being forgiven by God’s abundant mercy.  You can apply the lesson about shame today as you seek to work against the messages you take on and believe about yourself because of shame and reproach.  I am delighted that “Safe Haven Sunday” gives us a coordinated effort to turn attention to the topic of explicit material.  The particular focus for us this Sunday is to equip parents to protect your children in a sexualized culture.  As you leave Mass today we have a booklet resource.  This resource is specific to treating this topic for parents of children and so if you have children in the home I want you to make sure you pick up a booklet.  There is no shame in taking up that resource as an aid to your parenting.  You will note on the booklet’s front cover and in its first pages an invitation for parents to sign up for a 7-day challenge that will provide a crash course via email of lessons and practices parents should observe to address this topic in the home.

We all need to admit the prevalence of this crisis all around us.  We need to seek to eradicate it from our individual lives and we need to take serious steps to protect our children and to make an environment of greater purity and safety.  I don’t want to be guilty of rash judgement or to create awkwardness for you, however, parents, given the prevalence of this struggle, you should likely just assume that your child has been exposed to explicit material and that your middle school and high school child may already have a habit of use.  First exposure happened easily enough in my childhood, as it did for me in sixth grade when the innocence of a hike with my friends in Boy Scouts resulted in exposure when we found a magazine in an abandoned cabin in the woods.  But exposure is far easier now and it comes directly into your home.  In a past parish with a school, one of my fifth-grade girls was innocently doing online research for a geography report and stumbled upon an explicit site.  Thankfully her father happened to be with her and could intervene.  But it ought to shock us all into action to consider how easily a child’s innocence is violated by the flesh industry, which regularly purchases common, or otherwise harmless internet domain names precisely in order to infect a larger audience.

So what limits our courageous response to this moral pandemic?  We don’t recognize it, or we refuse to recognize it, for the objective sin that it is.  And furthermore, we continue to be trapped in its shame, the reproach of having used this material.  And if the devil can’t keep us from confessing this and acknowledging that it is a sin, then he knows he maintains power by keeping the reproach, the shame, and the blame as an open wound where he pours salt in the form of keeping us fearful, and believing the lies he speaks about us.  In this matter or any other serious sin be absolutely clear and careful about the power of the reproach of sin.  It speaks to you lies.  If you aren’t aware, careful, and active in rejecting such messages you find yourself listening to a voice that is not God.  Think about the power of the reproach of sin.  What is the message it declares?  Messages like these: “I’m no good.”  “I’m nothing but a filthy, disgusting sinner.”  “I deserve this.”  “I’ll never get over this.”  “There is no way God can forgive me.”  “I don’t deserve to have mercy.”  “No one would understand.”  “Hiding is better.”  “God can’t love me.”  And a particularly deforming message, “I am my sins.”  No, you aren’t!  That is not the voice of God speaking those messages.  They are lies and they come from the evil one who understands how reproach and shame works.  God reminds Israel in today’s first reading that they are not their sin and their experience of shame in Egypt.  He reminds them of their true identity and thus they had to once again bear the mark and live in the mark of the covenant… they belong to God, they are His children.  In your places of darkness, whatever the area of sin, your identity is as a beloved son or daughter of God.  You belong to God.  You are called to bear the mark and to live in the mark of your baptismal covenant.  God forgives the objective guilt and punishment due to our sins.  But He also gives His grace to heal more deeply the impact, the reproach and the shame of how we have each fallen to the lies that do not come from the mouth of God.

The Parable of the Prodigal Son speaks to us beautifully of the compassion of our Heavenly Father.  What do we learn from that rich parable?  The moment of conversion for the younger son comes in a great and pivotal line: “Coming to his senses” the son admits his guilt and makes a plan to return home.  He then takes steps to come home.  And there we see the compassion of the father who is clearly looking for any sign of return because while the son is still a long way off the father comes running out to him.  This shows us that the father has already forgiven him.  The father doesn’t even allow the son to finish his prepared speech.  What happens next shows the critical difference between being forgiven a sin versus being healed of its shame.  It probably seems strange to us, but out there on the road, the father has the son dressed in the robe, he puts the ring on his finger, and sandles on his feet.  What does this show us?  A hired worker did not dress like a member of the family.  The compassionate father, extravagant in his love and mercy, will not hear of it that his son is welcomed back merely to be nearby as a hired worker.  No, his son is a son, is a member of the family.  The father redresses the son in his proper dignity and insists on his true identity and his relationship as son.  This is the rich lesson for us of God’s mercy and compassion.  If we come to our senses, he forgives our guilt.  If we will stop the noise of our own prepared speeches and if we will stop listening to the voices that keep our shame raw, then we can be re-vested in the proper dignity of our identity and relationship as members of God’s family, His beloved sons and daughters.  On this “Safe Haven Sunday” it is time to come to our senses.  It is time for each of us to be healed and to have our shame removed.  It is time to be truly open to God’s work in healing us.  And, it is time to be like the father in the parable toward our own children.  We must be ready to open this difficult conversation in our homes and to use the resources of the sacraments and prayer so that our children are healed from explicit material.  It is time to use the resources offered today to help establish a safe haven in our homes so that our children can experience the healing of shame through an open and honest life with parents and by experiencing the compassion of the healing love of father and mother.  No matter the sin, no matter how we are lost… we can be found!