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Mea Culpa, O Felix Culpa
The Gravity of Sin and the Glory of Grace

Week of Monday, February 24, 2003

I was a struggling teenager and a poor student in high school, but I still remember my Latin teacher, Mrs. Haddock. That's different than saying I remember any Latin, which I don't. After doing poorly in her class, I tried my hand at French and then Spanish, and, of course, achieved similar mediocre results. Many years later as a Christian, I learned that for Protestants and Catholics, Latin is the language of our Christian scholarly heritage. Tertullian (c. 160–215) was the first major theologian to write in Latin as opposed to Greek, and at least among Catholics many readers can still remember hearing the mass in Latin.

There are some very powerful truths about following Jesus that have come down to us in succinct Latin phrases, and this week I want to introduce two of them to think about our lives as lived in sin and grace. Brennan Manning tells the story of attending the fiftieth year reunion of his graduating class of Xaverian High School in Brooklyn, when late one evening one of his classmates asked him to recap his life since high school. Manning responded, “well, it's been a half century of sin and grace.” Manning's comment hints at something important about following Jesus.

The first Latin phrase is so common that it has long since passed into our secular vernacular and for most people has no religious meaning at all: mea culpa. “It's my fault,” or “sorry about that.” But if you get a Catholic or Episcopal prayer book and turn to the right page you will read words something like this: mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. This is our Christian confession of sin, “my fault, my own fault, my own most grievous fault.” Part of following Jesus is owning up to our own sin and recognizing its gravity. We cannot blame others, say the devil made me do it, appeal to our genetic inheritance, reproach our social milieu, or indict our toxic parents who ruined us. True, all these factors helped to shape and form us into the people we are today; it would be wrong to deny their importance. But when we confess our sins, we say from the heart, “Father, this is my fault, my own fault, my own most grievous fault, and no one else's; it is horrible.”

If you want a Biblical model for this type of confession recall the Prodigal Son: “Father, I have sinned...I am no longer worthy to be called your son” (Luke 15:21). Jesus told the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9–14) to people who “were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else.” Luke's language is powerful. The Pharisee “stood up and prayed about himself,” thanking God that he was not like others. The sinful tax collector “stood at a distance.” He could not even bear to raise his head but could only manage to cry out, “God, have mercy on me a sinner.” After betraying Jesus three times Peter “wept bitterly” (Luke 22:62). And Paul, you will remember, counted himself the “worst” of all sinners (1 Timothy 1:16).

Some believers do not linger long enough here; they confess polite sins that are not so bad, sins that really do not require radical grace to forgive. Lurking in the background here is our constant temptation to defend ourselves. But others linger far too long and wallow in a sort of false or unhealthy guilt. Manning aptly describes this as a “terrorist spirituality.” Unhealthy guilt is abusive, harsh, depressive, despairing, and unremittingly accusatory.

So how do you know when you have confessed your sins adequately or fully? This brings us to the second Latin phrase that has helped me to crystallize an idea I have been thinking about for some time. Thomas Aquinas (1224–1274) gave us the startling phrase “O felix culpa!” in reference to the fall of Adam. “O fortunate crime!” The fall of Adam as a blessing? What did Aquinas mean in saying that Adam's sin was a good thing?1 I think he meant that our sinfulness, however radical and ugly, is the occasion for something even greater, God's rich love and mercy. Paul suggests this very idea in Romans 5:20 when he writes that “where sin increased, grace increased all the more.” God uses our sin and even satan himself for his purposes of goodness, so that St. Augustine writes, “God judged it better to bring good out of evil, than to allow no evil to exist.”2

Some time ago I was startled to read in Frederick Buechner the suggestion that “sin itself can be a means of grace.”3 This made me think of Aquinas's phrase above. Later still, I came across this same thought three more times. Julian of Norwich (1342–1414), an English mystic who lived her life in total solitude, once wrote that “sin will be no shame but an honor.” Similarly, Anthony deMello writes that “repentance reaches fullness when you are brought to gratitude for your sins.” Then Augustine once again, who wrote, “even from my sins God has drawn good.”4

I think it goes without saying that if you have not paused fully enough at the first Latin phrase to acknowledge without hedging the magnitude of your own sin, and that the fault is all your own, then the second Latin phrase about our sin as a sort of good fortune can be a huge excuse or the worst form of rationalization. But having confessed our sins fully and freely, we should be careful not to wallow in false guilt. I think Julian of Norwich was correct when she wrote, “Our courteous Lord does not want his servants to despair because they fall often and grievously; for our falling does not hinder him in loving us.”5

In Jesus God has freely bestowed His grace upon us and made us “accepted in His beloved” (Ephesians 1:6, KJV). Have you fully accepted His acceptance? Have you come to “know and rely upon the love God has for us” (1 John 4:16, NIV)? Manning offers an interesting test.

Imagine that Jesus ate dinner with you tonight. In sitting at your table Jesus had full knowledge of “everything you are and are not, your whole life story, with the hidden agenda and the dark desires unknown even to yourself, every skeleton in your closet, all your mixed motives and dark desires buried in your psyche.”6 Does such a prospective dinner fill you with dread or joy? I think Manning is correct that at such a dinner, and despite Jesus's intimate knowledge of all we are and are not, “it would still be impossible to be saddened in His presence...You would feel His acceptance and forgiveness.” Of course, this is precisely what we read in the Gospels about Jesus attracting the worst sinners of society to Himself at dinner parties, much to the chagrin of the religiously righteous.

Here is how Manning answered this test when he responded to his former classmate at the high school reunion: “Yes, I've been a drunk and I've been divorced. I've been sexually promiscuous, faithful during my marriage but unfaithful to celibacy, a liar, envious of the gifts of others, a priest who was insufferably arrogant, a people pleaser and a braggart...[But] by sheer undeserved grace, I've been able to abandon myself in unshaken trust to the compassion and mercy of Jesus Christ.”7 Manning makes his mea culpa, without qualification or obfuscation, but he does not stop there. Rather, he presses on to the o felix culpa. He understands the gravity of his sin; but he also understands the greater power and glory of God's grace in Jesus Christ.

  1. The full sentence in Aquinas reads, “O fortunate crime which merited such and so great a redeemer.”
  2. Augustine, Enchiridion, xxvii.
  3. Frederick Buechner, The Sacred Journey (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1982), p. 3.
  4. See Brennan Manning, The Wisdom of Tenderness (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 2002), pp. 145, 147, and 33, for the quotes by Julian of Norwich, deMello, and Augustine.
  5. Manning, ibid., p. 147.
  6. Manning uses this story several times. See The Ragamuffin Gospel (Sisters, Oregon: Multnomah, 2000), p. 67; and A Glimpse of Jesus, The Stranger to Self-Hatred (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 2003), p. 33.
  7. Manning, A Glimpse of Jesus, p. 24.

The Journey with Jesus: Notes to Myself Copyright ©2003 by Dan Clendenin. All Rights Reserved.

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