Saturday, March 30, 2013

Necessary sin and Happy Fault

Easter Vigil

O truly necessary sin of Adam,
Destroyed completely by the Death of Christ!
O happy fault that earned so great,
So glorious a Redeemer

Do you recognise this line? You should. It is found in the ExsĂșltet (the Easter Proclamation) which I had just sung at the beginning of this Vigil service. Perhaps, most people would have missed it unless you caught the oxymoronic contradiction found in two expressions therein: “necessary sin” and “happy fault”.  The joy of these words is surprising, since we’re accustomed to think of Adam and Eve’s sin as a great tragedy, as a curse which was inflicted on humanity, hardly a matter for rejoicing. Some even feel that this phrase is dangerously ambivalent and may risk being taken out of context,  and used as a masterful piece of rationalisation that justifies sinning. So, if we consider sin as abhorrent to God and something which separates us from Him, what ‘sin’ could be considered ‘necessary’? How could any ‘fault’ or mistake be considered happy?  Why, then, does the Church through her liturgy dare to speak of the Fall as a “happy fault” or a “necessary sin?”

The Latin expression felix culpa (happy fault) is derived from the writings of St Augustine, whose personal life was testimony to the truth of this maxim. In order for St Augustine to have been one of the greatest converts to Christianity, one of its greatest theologians and pastor, he had to start off being a great sinner. This was obviously the case: here was a man who had been schooled by his own father to frequent brothels since adolescence. As an adult, he would keep a woman in concubinage, what we would describe as a ‘sex slave’ in modern terms. He then got caught up with a whole lot of pseudo religious philosophies and ideologies that mitigated or even negated the effects of sin, thus presenting him with an ideological justification for his depraved libertine lifestyle. St Augustine was truly great sinner. But then grace touched him, moved him and finally transformed him into one of the Church’s greatest saints.  In speaking about the source of original sin, Augustine writes, “For God judged it better to bring good out of evil than not to permit any evil to exist.”

What St Augustine meant here was that the Fall of Adam was from one point of view fortunate, since without it humankind could not have experienced the unsurpassable joy of the redemption. The reason is that through the redemption of Jesus Christ we have been restored to the supernatural state in a way far surpassing in glory what we could have known had there been no Fall. From Adam’s sin came the glory of Jesus Christ. If Adam and Eve never fell, Christ would never have needed to come. And so God allowed the loss of perfect human bliss through the original sin of Adam and Eve in order to bring about a greater, divine bliss for humanity (cf. 2 Peter 1:4)! The remedy dished out by God goes far beyond restoring us to that Edenic state! God never goes backwards. He's not taking us back to Eden.

If you are not convinced of the veracity of this doctrine, the whole of scripture stands as irrefutable evidence. By eating the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, Adam and Eve are now prohibited from tasting the fruit of the Tree of Life which would have guaranteed them immortality. But here comes the ‘felix culpa’ bit – If man had not been denied immortality at this stage, he would still have to suffer an eternity of sin, an eternity of the effects of sin – alienation, suffering, pain, etc. But death would at least provide him with the temporary relief. We would still need to wait for the coming of Christ to complete the cure.

Let’s take a little fast forward ride through the rest of the Old Testament. If humanity had not sin by attempting to build the Tower of Babel, we would not be blessed with the myriad of cultures, civilisations, languages that have emerged throughout our human history. If Joseph had not been betrayed by his brothers and sold off to slavery, he would not have been their saviour, when the land was struck by famine. If Moses had not run away from Egypt as an act of cowardice, he would not have been chosen by God to lead his people to freedom. If David had not committed a transgression and adultery with Uriah’s wife, Solomon would not have been born. If the Temple had not been destroyed, the Church, the Body of Christ, who is the New and Perfect Temple, would have remained a dream. If Judas had not betrayed Jesus, Christ would not have been able to redeem the world through his sacrifice on the Cross.  

But this scenario also begs the question, Why did God not prevent Adam and Eve from sinning? I believe the difficulty in answering this question lies in a misunderstanding of Christ's redemption of our sins. That misunderstanding lies in the fact that they think that the incarnation, passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus constituted God's "Plan B" for creation. In other words, people often assume that the original, perfect state of Adam and Eve before the Fall was "Plan A" and then when Adam and Eve sinned and were booted from Eden, God had to come up with a "Plan B" to undo the damage. When the exsultet calls Adam's sin "necessary", it intends to completely undercut this mistaken notion. There's a huge mystery here: that ponderous mystery of God's preknowledge and how it ties in to our free will. While God never actively wills sin and disobedience, He made the option possible in order that we could freely choose to love Him instead. Yet Adam and Eve's decision was never unknown to God, nor was the outcome. From all eternity God knew that His rational creatures would choose to rebel against Him, and His divine plan incorporated Adam's sin from the very foundations of the world. The Incarnation was not Plan B. God becoming Man so that we could participate in the divine life of God through grace was the idea all along!

Through, Baptism we are inserted into this great paradox, this great mystery of redemption. God is doing a new thing; the same New Thing He has been unfolding from all eternity; the same New Thing that unfolded at the Cross and was confirmed in the Resurrection, and which is consummated in us through his graces to us, especially our rebirth in Baptism and our sustenance of Himself in the Eucharist! We are no longer mere children of Adam; through baptism we have been made adopted children of God. We are no longer just promised an eternity in Eden; through baptism, we are heirs of eternal life in heaven. By our Baptism, the Son of God has made us integral members of His Mystical Body. As members of Christ’s Mystical Body, we will be drawn with Him into the Blessed Trinity itself! Then will be fulfilled that astonishing promise of sacred Scripture: we will “become partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet 1:4). This vastly exceeds what God would have done for unfallen man.

All too often we run from our mistakes, reject them or simply live in denial of them. The failed work is quickly set aside.  And worse, all too often initial mistakes, initial failures discourage us and prevent us from moving forward. The Paschal Mystery, the Mystery which Good Friday and Easter reveals, demands that we learn to recognise that hidden within every mistake, every human error, every shortcoming, every failure and even in the greatest of falls is the seed of the resurrection – where even sin can be transformed by a single moment of grace. Indeed, rather than cast aside his fallen creation, God reaches into the failure and tragedy of human sinfulness to redeem us. This is the Mystery which claims us in Christ and the power of this same Mystery is what heals us in the sacraments. 

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