The Adoration of the Golden Calf, Poussin 1634, National Gallery, London, UK.
Jesus said, “In just the same way, I tell you, there will be rejoicing among the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” Luke 15:10.
In the 1951 superb movie of Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol, there is a scene where Ebenezer Scrooge goes to his business partner, Jacob Marley’s house as he had been told several hours before that Jacob was dying. Refusing to close his office early, Scrooge waited until his 7:30 closing hour in the evening to go see his partner for the last time. Gasping for breath, Marley utters his last words: “We were wrong”.
A Christmas Carol, Renown Pictures Corporation 1951, Alastair Sim & Michael Hordern.
Scrooge laughs this off, “Well we can’t be right all the time” and thinks no more of it. Marley, of course, is referring to their entire business history, where they concentrated simply and solely on making money, no matter what. They had no thought of the distress and pain of others; if it didn’t make them money they were not interested. On his deathbed, Jacob Marley had come to this deadly realization that his entire life was an abomination in the eyes of God. Dickens’ entire story, of course, is the slow path Scrooge himself goes down to reach the same conclusion, with the help of the famous three spirits, but with time left to make amends. Today’s readings give scriptural support to that same journey. The golden calf in today’s first reading easily stands in for Marley’s deathbed vision of a life spent worshipping money; St. Paul, in his letter to Timothy, today’s second reading, agonizes over his earlier life when he persecuted the followers of Jesus before being saved by the grace of God, hence a parallel to Scrooge’s journey to redemption. And then today’s gospel with the joy that God and the angels feel at the sinner coming to his senses and being saved by God’s mercy.
So once more we come to the grim reality of the condition of remorse. Marley experienced it too late (though God’s mercy is unlimited and incomprehensible). And Scrooge’s abounding joy as he experiences for the first time the genuine love of his neighbors and his family, having plumbed the depth of remorse during his conversion. I am reminded of another example of remorse. Dr. Samuel Johnson, creator of one of the first dictionaries of the English Language, and one of the great minds of his time, grew up in a poor family in the north of England in the 18th century. His father was an itinerant bookseller, going from town to town and setting up shop in marketplaces. Young Samuel was too proud to help his father, refusing to stand in for him when he was ill. As an adult, of course, he realized his arrogance and misplaced pride, and suffered from the deepest remorse. One way he handled it this is shown here:
Dr. Johnson Doing Penance in the Market Place of Uttoxeter, Staffordshire, Eyre Crowe 1869, Dr. Johnson’s House, London, UK.
He did penance, in his own words: “Pride was the source of that refusal, and the remembrance of it was painful. A few years ago I desired to atone for this fault. I went to Uttoxeter in very bad weather and stood for a considerable time bareheaded in the rain on the spot where my father’s stall used to stand. In contrition I stood, and I hope the penance was expiatory. (Boswell’s Life of Johnson, 1786). Remorse is, I think, a taste of hell. It is a realization that we have done wrong, cannot undo that wrong, and yet yearn to do something, anything, to make amends. For all the pain which accompanies it, it can lead to a better life. So in a strange way, it is a life-giving pain. The rejoicing in heaven when even one of us going through such a painful transition to a much happier, self-fulfilling state, now aware of God’s other children around us, is considerable, as the gospel says. Each one of us is that single sheep from today’s gospel, so precious in the eyes of the Lord that the others are left in their self-righteousness to get on with it; each of us is that lost coin, with God searching and searching for us until we are found, until we recognize our dependence on the Lord’s mercy. Remember the definition of mercy, compassion on someone who does not deserve it. We are each that precious in the eyes of the Lord.
Rescue of the Lost Lamb, Minerva Teichert, 1939, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah. USA.
Reflections on next Sunday’s Mass Readings will be posted on Wednesday.