Lent in black and white

Two realities, sin and sinlessness, are united in one Christ to be our Easter treat
Lent in black and white
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Father William Grimm
February 24, 2020
In 1664, British warships forced the surrender of the Dutch colony of Nieuw Nederland on the Atlantic coast of North America. Particularly in the village of Nieuw Amsterdam, renamed New York, the subsequent interaction of two cultures produced an amalgam that continues to shape that city and even the rest of the world.

English children jealous that their Dutch playmates were visited each year by a gift-bearing Sinterklaas apparently clamored to share in the fun. And so, Santa Claus began his long sleigh ride through the culture and commerce of America and beyond. He may have moved to the North Pole, but he is a native New Yorker.

Another treat for adults as well as children was koekje (little cake). That is the reason that while most of the English-speaking world savors biscuits, America’s Sesame Street TV program brought us Cookie Monster.

Two centuries after Nieuw Amsterdam had become New York, a treat still somewhat unique to that city was born, the black and white cookie. It is coated half-and-half with dark and light frosting. Though when I was a kid I gave up eating them during Lent, those cookies are an apt symbol for the season.

We generally think of Lent as a time of gloom. After all, it starts with ashes and the admonition, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” and we are exhorted to recall and repent of our sins. We make sacrifices, fast and abstain. Lent properly draws to a close with Confession early in Holy Week as the culmination of our reflection. But even with an emphasis upon repentance for sin and the dark parts of our lives, the liturgy talks of the time as an annual “graceful gift,” and describes us as “rejoicing in this annual celebration of our Lenten observance.” Black and white.

Based on the New Testament Letter to the Hebrews (Heb. 4:17), the Catholic Church proclaims Jesus as “one like us in all things but sin.” At the same time, however, in the second reading for the Mass on Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, St. Paul declares that, “For our sake [God] made him to be sin who did not know sin.” (2 Cor. 5:21). White and black. 

Over the years, some Christians, especially perhaps Protestants, have made St. Paul’s declaration that Jesus was “made sin” the foundation of much of their thought about salvation. God’s hatred of sin prompted speculation about how on the cross Jesus bore the brunt of that divine hatred. Having been made sin, Jesus was actually hated by God and was made to suffer accordingly. Black but not much, if any, white.

Might there be a lighter way of looking at Paul’s declaration that Jesus became sin?

Well, what if Jesus’ becoming sin is not about God’s hatred but is instead about divine love? The Church Father and Doctor St. Gregory of Nazianzus (329-390) in his Epistle 101 said of Christ, “That which he has not assumed he has not healed.” In that case, Jesus became sin in order that even our sinfulness could be assumed and healed, brought to the Resurrection as was all the humanity that Jesus assumed in the Incarnation. St. Gregory tells us that had Jesus not become fully human, embracing even the fullness of sin, our sin would not have been healed by Christ.

God’s greatest act of love in Jesus is the total embrace even of our sinfulness, the sinfulness that God hates. Jesus took that sin with him into death and the realm of death (“he descended into hell”) so that it might rise with him, now glorified.

Jesus has not taken away the sin of the world by making it disappear. That is obvious. I need not look any farther than my own heart to see that sin remains in at least one part of the world.

Neither has Jesus made sin alright. Sin remains what it always has been, the darkness in our lives, a darkness that none of us can be rid of. And so, its embrace by Jesus is good news for me, not because having my sin or being had by sin is good but because without sin I would not be the real me. God welcomes me, a sinner, not minus anything of me, not even my sin.

That is good news not because having my sins is good but because without them I would not be fully me, imperfect but loved.

I am like a black and white cookie, dark and light united on one cookie. And Jesus has united those two realities, black and white. Two realities, sin and sinlessness, are united in one Christ to be our Easter treat.

Father William Grimm is a New York-born priest based in Tokyo. He has also served in Cambodia and Hong Kong and is the publisher of UCA News. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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