Anglicans, Lutherans, and other liturgical folk (people with more historically formed patterns of worship and church life) are often asked why we put so much emphasis on the ‘negative’ parts of Christianity, especially on ‘sin.’ “Why do you have a confession for the whole church to pray every week in worship?” (or even every day) “Why ‘celebrate’ Lent?” (Lent, those forty days before Easter traditionally marked by fasting, worship, contrition, repentance.) “Jesus isn’t on the cross anymore- He’s risen! So why do you spend so much time looking back at something so ugly?”
The best way I’ve come to understand our need to talk about sin is in the image of the ocean floor. Christians in confession and contrition, especially in Lent and on Good Friday, are consistently walking further out and further down into the depths and darkness, intentionally feeling how far we’ve settled, how deeply into ourselves our inward rebellion and self-centeredness and pride have dug us. There’s so much mud down there, such strange creatures in the silt, so much decay. Christians walk intentionally into it, again and again.
And so the fair question: Why? Why would we ever want to step into such things again? What good could be seen in such wretchedness?
Well, it really depends on the direction in which we’re looking. The further down we go, the deeper the hole gets- the thicker the mud, the darker the ground. But Christians don’t walk into the bottom of the ocean to look down. We walk to the bottom of the ocean to look up; to feel the weight of the love that covers us. Only at the bottom of the ocean can you understand how much water fills it. Only at the bottom of our sin can we feel the weight of the grace that covers and fills and makes alive all that is past. Here is the height and depth and length and breadth of the love of God revealed, and never more profoundly than at the cross.
The cross of Good Friday plumbs the depth of sin, the breadth of our shortcomings, and shows them deeper and wider than we imagined. On Good Friday we see (and see more accurately each year) the true ugliness of our rebellion and of our unfaithfulness to the God of love. The cross sinks deeper and deeper, deeper than we thought possible to descend- and yet the cross still reaches higher and higher, to the surface and even to the highest heavens. Here, from the depths, we see the the heart of God for what it is: overwhelming mercy, perfect generosity, complete self-sacrifice, overflowing love. The cross opens our eyes to sin, but only that we might more clearly see our Savior. (Mark 15.39)
And as we come to Easter, we watch the ocean filled anew, with the sweet, pure water of grace. What was once there is now dead and buried and gone, and new life flows in its place. Without walking the weighty paths of confession and contrition, without considering the sin of man and suffering of God’s Son, we miss the weight of what was done, the glory of what now is, and the wonder of the One who has brought it all about.
Point of clarification: It’s important to note that we do not spend all our lives meditating on sin. We intentionally spend moments, and the occasional season (like Lent) on it, but always for a set, limited amount of time- until the pastor proclaims forgiveness and peace, or until Easter fills the ocean anew with a sea of grace. I know (all too well) that there is such a thing as too much introspection. We are called to dwell on God- to look honestly at our sin is merely a temporary, if regular, means to that end.