Advent is not a season of penance, but of preparation. Advent prepares us for the two comings of Christ, that is, the Incarnation and the Eschaton. However, amid the garlands and the gifts, we all know how easy it is to become wrapped up in the party planning on earth and forget to plan for the eternal banquet in heaven.
Thus an Advent examination of conscience is not amiss. While not encouraging it as the grump who steals the joy of Christmas, what better way to prepare for Christ than by preparing our conscience? Think of it as a spiritual shopping list that will help us not spend beyond our budget, but rather receive beyond our dreams.
Guess Who’s Coming to Christmas
To begin, I’ll describe a character from a novella with whom you are likely familiar, but whom you may not know as well as you think. Thus, as I describe him, try to guess his name. Here are hints: He’s a tax-paying small businessman who provides employment for several people. Himself a wit, he cares not a whit for either the politically correct or for worldly respect. And a close textual analysis indicates that this character committed no serious sin. Rather he eats frugally, exercises, and is regular in his habits; he’s punctual in his appointments. He’s hard working and he lives in great simplicity, even austerity. He’s chaste, he’s intelligent, he’s articulate, he’s assertive, he’s Scrooge. Ebenezer Scrooge.
Note that I’ve just described Scrooge before his conversion. And, although he’s unpopular and grouchy, he’s committed no serious sin. Hence, Marley’s ghost does not reproach Scrooge for any sins of commission, but only for sins of omission. Marley himself bemoans his own suffering, which is the result of his own sins of omission, that is, the good that he might done while alive, but did not. When Scrooge protests that Marley was just a good businessman, Marley wails: “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business.” And “any Christian spirit working kindly in its little sphere . . . will find its mortal life too short for its vast means of usefulness. . . . [N]o space of regret can make amends for one life’s opportunity misused!” Opportunities misused were opportunities to do good left undone, or sins of omission. Finally, Marley shows Scrooge other suffering spirits, all miserable for the same reason: They eternally long to do good because that is their nature as creatures made by the Source of all good, but because they have lost forever the opportunity to fulfill their nature by doing good works, they eternally lament that longing.
Scrooge, therefore, is not haunted because of any evil he committed; he is haunted by the good he failed to do. Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol for good Christians like us — hard-working, honest folks enjoying well-deserved comfort but who fail to move out of our comfort zone to consider the suffering of others. Scrooge is indicted not for his sins of commission, but for his sins of omission mentioned always in the second half of a phrase we pray frequently when we repent for “what I have done and what I have failed to do.”
Now, sins of omission may seem minor; but they matter. As the walls of Rome fell and the shades of the Dark Ages rose, St. Augustine proclaimed that evil is the privation or omission of the good God intends. Sins of omission are not minor; they matter. As the unity of Christendom cracked and Henry VIII prepared the martyrs’ rack, St. Thomas More testified that a Christian’s silence before evil gives assent to that evil. Sins of omission are not minor; they matter. As the church bells of Paris fell silent while gleaming guillotines fell strident, Edmund Burke wrote, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
Sins of Omission
What are some common sins of omission that matter so much? First, individualism begets sins of omission. Scrooge is described as “secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster.” The opposite of individualism is the Catholic teaching on the common good, or that necessary good which can only be achieved through our common cooperation. Because each person is not only sacred, but social, sins of omission include: 1) neglecting our civic duty to be informed citizens who vote responsibly; 2) neglecting to care for our parish church and community through contributions of time and money commensurate with our means; 3) putting ourselves and others at risk by ignoring legitimate civil law such as not texting while driving; 4) using social media, television, or videos as procrastination rather than legitimate relaxation.
Second, consumerism also fosters sins of omission because it treats others as only competitors or commodities, such as the following: 1) adding to a polluted environment when wasting energy by leaving on lights and other sources of consumption unnecessarily; 2) failing to acknowledge or thank those who provide for us; 3) spending without need and thus with indifference to the needs of others; 4) not paying our debts or returning that which was borrowed.
Third, relativism expressed when we disregard Church teachings as if they do not apply to us because we don’t agree with or understand them. Fourth, a secularism that is preoccupied with the superficial, like Kardashians, rather than the substantial, like Christians. Other unexamined ideologies also calcify into invincible ignorance that promotes indifference. Such ideologies are expressed through prejudice, bullying, and any callous communication which disregards or discounts the feelings of others.
Sins of omission are not minor; they matter. Judas committed evil, but the other apostles on Good Friday omitted the good they could have done. Jesus’s final request was “Remain with me.” Yet they failed Him. They even failed to give Him a decent burial; the faithful women had to do that. Judas was richly rewarded for what he did; the others bitterly regretted what they did not do. Like Marley, they bemoaned the good they could have done.
Sins of omission are not minor; they matter. The only time Jesus describes judgement day, He describes sins of omission, such as: “When, Lord, did we see you hungry and fail to feed you?” If we’re always dining in fine restaurants, and never serving in a soup kitchen, it’s hard to see the hungry.
The road to hell is paved with good intentions because good intentions not acted upon are sins of omission: time wasted, love unspoken, apologies avoided, forgiveness withheld, thoughtless thanklessness, compliments silenced rather than shared — these are all today’s opportunity’s squandered by sin that accumulate into tomorrow’s regretted could-have-been.
Sins of omission accumulate and habituate. Overlook today’s angelic opportunities and it becomes easier to take without need, hurt without heed, and cover God’s benevolence with casual indifference. Sins of omission matter because they lead to the scandal of habitual hypocrisy.
But the Advent season, like the Ghost of Christmas Past, is as yet young. There is time to examine and confess your sins of omission so that on Christmas morning the only ghost that will visit you will be the Holy Ghost. And, like the repentant Scrooge, that blessed Spirit will help you keep Christmas in your heart all the rest of your life.