Tuesday, May 08, 2018

Paul's prison song and the "convicting of sin"

Today we have the memorable reading from the Acts of the Apostles where Paul and his missionary partner Silas, like him a Roman citizen, are summarily arrested, beaten and imprisoned in Philippi. In the middle of the night, while the two apostles are praying and singing hymns to God, a well-timed earthquake sets them and everyone else free (temporarily, at least). The upshot is that the jailer and his family are baptized that night, and the next day the two unjustly imprisoned citizens get a public apology before leaving town.
The responsorial psalm, Psalm 138, highlights the prayer of Paul and Silas in that dungeon: "In the presence of the angels I will sing your praise." Then in the Gospel, as we continue to listen to Jesus' "Farewell Discourse" with the promise of the Holy Spirit, Jesus tells us that when the Spirit comes, that Divine Spirit will "convict the world in regard to sin and righteousness and condemnation."
Pope John Paul dedicated no little space in his encyclical on the Holy Spirit to that passage, parsing out what it means for the Spirit to convict the world concerning (a) sin, (b) righteousness, and (c) condemnation, but...I confess I have yet to understand what he meant. I did, however, come across some years ago a passage by one of my favorite authors, the Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann, who wrote on this very subject in a way that ties together all three of the Scripture texts from today's Mass:

The Church convicts sin through her thanksgiving. Through which she recognizes the vital lessons of evil, the source of sin as unthankfulness, as man's falling away from the 'hymning, blessing, praising, giving thanks and worshiping' through which he lives—for man, and in him all creation, knows God and has communion with him. Not giving thanks is the root and the driving force of ... pride ….
(He says much more, but it will have to wait for another occasion.)
Paul and Silas, "hymning, blessing, praising, giving thanks and worshiping" in the Philippi jail were "convicting sin" through the power of the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit manifested that through the sign of an earthquake. That "hymning" in the midst of our own everyday activities, or even our daily sufferings, confesses that Jesus has already won the victory: we are not deceived in giving thanks and praise before the full experience of that victory has been bestowed on us.

Is the great sin of omission of our time a lack of praise? Can Jesus say of our generation what he told the Pharisees on that first Palm Sunday: "If these fall silent, the rocks and stones will cry out?"

Biblical illustrations by Jim Padgett, courtesy of Sweet Publishing, Ft. Worth, TX, and Gospel Light, Ventura, CA. Copyright 1984. Released under new license, CC-BY-SA 3.0

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