The alarm didn’t go off, and you find yourself scrambling to get to work on time. You manage to run a brush through your hair while in the car, but most other bathroom rituals needed to be skipped this morning while you scrambled to work. It was a long day at work; struggling through the door at home, late and oh-so-tired, you stagger to bed, falling asleep. In the morning, you’re still groggy and recovering from the previous day as you go to work. You get home, late again, and look in the mirror. You realize: It’s been 48 hours since you brushed your teeth.
You look in the mirror. You don’t feel particularly different. Running your tongue across your teeth, you might feel the grit of plaque on your incisors, but it’s not terrible, exactly. You might wonder, what’s the big deal? Why do I go through the daily tooth-brushing ritual, anyway? If you don’t see or feel an effect, why do you follow the advice of those so-called experts?
Of course, the passage of time reveals why the habit is so important. But by then it’s too late, the effects of cavities and gum disease causing your mouth to change. At that point, it either takes a great cost and expense to get to normal . . . or your mouth may never be normal again for the rest of your days.
Today’s readings touch upon the topic of sin. There are musings on the nature of sin (“sin is lawlessness”), and the declaration of John the Baptist (“Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world”). There’s an understanding of what sin can entail (“No one who remains in [God] sins; no one who sins has seen him or known him”), and a discussion of baptism (which rids us of our original sin).
Reflecting on these passages, I couldn’t help but draw the parallel between plaque and sin. Plaque cannot be seen with the naked eye, and sin is similarly invisible. Despite your best efforts, you cannot rid yourself of plaque permanently; no matter how pure a life you live or how diligently you clean, it will return and — in short order — begin adversely affecting you again. Our sins are cleaned with baptism, and we rid ourselves of grave sins through the Sacrament of Penance and lesser sins through weekly communion, but none of these efforts can be considered “final”; no matter how good a life you live, you’ll still need to go to Mass the next Sunday and you should still try to get to the confessional periodically.
Both sin and plaque do not make their costs known immediately. It’s not like you’re struck by lightning the first time you covet your neighbor, or your teeth fall out the first time you fail to brush your teeth. In fact, the seeming lack of immediate consequences is incredibly dangerous, lulling you into a false sense of security. But your sins can come back to haunt you, and — again — may prove costly to fix (in the form of time in purgatory away from the glory of Heaven) or even impossible to reconcile (the oft-warned fires of Gehenna).
How important is it to take care of the sin in our own lives? It is so vital that even Jesus — free from sin — asked to be baptized. I like to think that he did this to show the rest of us exactly how to live, similar to how we show children how to brush their teeth even if we no longer have our own.
The coming of the new calendar year is a time when many of us look to take care of problems or declare resolutions. Many of those resolutions are toward pursuits that are imperceptible in the micro sense, eating less to lose weight or exercising more to improve your health years down the line. It’s a good opportunity to renew your own dedication to periodically clearing the “plaque” of your soul, by taking due diligence against sin. Avoid the “sweets” of temptation and idleness that give time for sin to take root, and truly reflect on “brushing” your sins away through your visits to Mass and the Sacrament of Confession. If dental health pays dividends your entire life, a lifetime vigilance against sin will pay off even more greatly beyond this mortal realm.