We talk a lot about how bad sin is, and it is bad. As Augustine reminds us, sin is nothing short of a reduction of our personhood.
What is often experienced, but not often talked about, is how ordinary and repetitive sin can be. How often do we find ourselves stuck in a grinding routine, any routine, and find ourselves feeling demeaned, less than what we were meant to be, a less than human cog in a machine of mere existence? Sin can be like that too.
How often do we find ourselves going to confession, having been assured of the forgiveness of those sins, only to come back after a time to confess the exact same sins again? I know of accounts of priests whose normal experience in celebrating the Sacrament of Penance is not so much dismay at the singularly scandalous nature of sins confessed. Rather, it is the tedium of hearing penitents who come to say that they have committed the same sins for the umpteenth time. If the wage of sin is death, it is probably because it is a death of a thousand identical cuts.
Writing in a Girardian timbre in his Raising Abel, James Alison draws the parallel between sin and compulsive disorders (115). Here the person suffering such a disorder, in order to expel an unhealed memory and establish one’s own identity over and against that memory, tries to cast the memory out by reliving either the events of that memory or its associated pattern of behaviours over and over again. I am oversimplifying here, but it is possible to see sin as the attempt to establish one’s own self over and against God, only to find that the product of sin does not match the advertising. But rather than give up our attempts to establish an identity independent from God, we choose instead to return again and again to the the same cycle of rebellion, in the vain hope that repeating it for the hundredth time will finally deliver the novelty that the previous ninety-nine times only promised.
The reason I raise this is that there is a subtle parallel depicted in the Scriptures. In the Old Testament, we see that sin is a theme precisely because it is repeated over and over, as seen in the repetition of the phrase “and they did what was displeasing in the eyes of the Lord”. This undercurrent of sin-stained repetition in the Old Testament is given another expression in the New. When Jesus meets the Apostle Matthew, Zacchaeus or the Woman at the Well, the Gospels slip in that same theme, only this time it is depicted in terms of a life of routine. In the case of Matthew and Zacchaeus, Jesus meets them in their routine of collecting taxes. In a similar vein, the Samaritan Woman speaks of her life of sin as connected with having to “keep coming here to draw water” (John 4:15), to keep coming to the same pattern in yet another attempt to experience life afresh.
In a (not really stark) contrast to the repetitious tedium of sin, the saving work of God is framed in terms of a breaking of that tedium. With every repetition of “doing what was displeasing”, another antiphon rings through the Scriptures: “See, I make all things new”. The mercy of God comes as an interruption to our sin-stained repetition, seen in the Gospel of Matthew when, after Jesus interrupts the Apostle’s routine of tax collecting, the latter leaves behind that routine in order to follow the former. The following of Jesus is a training to not just “sin no more”, but to apprehend a divine mercy that is fresh and new, not just in a single moment in one’s history, but in every moment. This why Augustine can exclaim in his Confessions (10:27) that his experience of God as a beauty that is both “so ancient and so new”.
This novelty in God’s mercy is not only an ethical thing, limited to a novelty in human behaviour. The novelty of mercy goes right down to a restructuring of the entire metaphysics of our universe, from one that is under the compulsive dominion of sin, to one that is under the dominion of a God whose mercy is made new every morning. More specifically, every moment of our journey in this life is a singular instantiation of those three haunting words at the start of the Book of Genesis and the Gospel of John: “In the beginning…”
I mentioned in a previous post the essay “The Theological Praxis of Revolution”, in which Aaron Riches and Creston Davis argue that fidelity to the Christ Event, while operating under the form of a liturgical repetition, nonetheless bears the fruit of a perpetual renewal of the universe. The mercy of God comes as a singular – kairotic – event, which breaks the cycle of sin by bringing into our view the freshness of God’s love, a new eden woven into every moment of our experience, including the moments of sin-stained tedium.
While living under the dominion of grinding routine, the Christian life bears the possibility of another life, a new life in the Christ who makes all things new. This is a life not of the hollow novelty of a seemingly new line of consumer products, but an abundant life where the experience of routine in our lives can become a gateway to discern the singular novelty of divine mercy.