Homily for the 3rd Sunday of Lent, 2012
At the meeting this past Wednesday with the Junior high we were talking about the Eucharist, originally, but then, as normally happens, we got off topic. I forget how it came up – I think I was talking about the five precepts of the Church, the duties that we have as Catholics – and of course one of them is that we go to confession once a year. “What?” they said. “Really?” “I haven’t been to confession in forever.” One of the things I enjoy most about the Junior high age is how there is no filter. “How many of you,” I asked “have not been to confession since your first confession?” 8 out of 10.
And you know, it’s the same with our high school kids, many of whom we’ve been worked in recent weeks to help prepare for their second confession. As I recall, it was the same for me: there was a huge gap between my first confession and my second at a high school retreat. And then things were spotty after that – a year here, two years there… No regular reception of the sacrament until my later college years. Given the numbers of confessions that we have, I would hesitate to guess the average number of years that it’s been since a Catholic in our parish has been to confession: 5, 10, 15?
It used to be different. There was a time when Catholic families would go to the church at least twice a year, if not monthly, to receive the Sacrament of Penance. My dad talks about how it was just a part of the family routine growing up.
But after the Second Vatican Council, the practice seriously declined. Why is that? Often I hear people say that they were told at one point or another that we don’t need to confess our sins to the priest any more. As if it’s some kind of archaic practice that has become outmoded. Sometimes they apparently heard such things from priests themselves. That unless they had killed someone they shouldn’t worry about confession.
But that has never been the teaching of the Church. Instead, the confession of sins and the forgiveness of sins – the continued cleansing work of Christ in the temple – is one of the most ancient and revered practices of the Church. And this is because the Church has always understood that Christ desired to continue his redemptive work of forgiveness of sins in us through the apostles and their successors. He specifically told them: “Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.” In doing so, he ensured that his work of forgiveness and healing would be more than a doctrine, something that we recite in the creed each week, that we believe happened once upon a time in some distant place.
No, in their ministry of forgiveness, exercised by the apostles and their successors in the Sacrament of Penance, Christ’s work of cleansing and restoration remains alive, remains a personal experience of Jesus’ healing and forgiveness in time and space. When giving absolution, the bishop or priest does not say “Jesus’ passion, death, and resurrection forgives sins, so I guess your sins are forgiven as long as you are sorry for them.” He says “I absolve you from your sins, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” The words of absolution make it very clear: it is Jesus who speaks to us through the priest, acts through the priest. In this sacrament, he breaks through the limitations of this world to be with us and heal us, to restore to us the freedom that he wants us to have as his sons and daughters. As he did 2000 years ago, he enters the temple of our hearts, throwing out the idols that have taken his place, opening wide its windows and doors, airing it out, sweeping the floors and letting his Spirit wash over all things, filling them with a peace and joy that only he can bring.
So why don’t we go – what holds us back? It doesn’t sound that bad. Penances aren’t that severe these days. I haven’t given a pilgrimage to Jerusalem for a while…
Do we doubt that we can be forgiven? Or perhaps we doubt that Jesus is really still at work in this old Church of ours through some old priest in some old ritual?
Or maybe we don’t want to be judged, we don’t even want to be judged by Jesus himself. We don’t think that we should have to be judged in order to be healed. He should just be able to cast some spell over us that will clean everything without having to enter inside and deal with all the mess. We don’t like the idea of turning ourselves inside out, airing the dirty laundry, revealing ourselves as unclean. Sure, we know we’re not perfect, but no one is – why the need to grovel in it? Isn’t God good and merciful and all powerful? Does he really need us to go through these old rituals?
But Christ’s answer is clear on this one: yes – yes, he does. Not for his sake, but for ours. Christ has decided to continue his healing and forgiving of sins among us in a very humble and simple way because he knows who we are and he knows what we need in order to find healing. Our hearts were not made for magic wands, they were made for him – they were made to hear his voice, to be filled with his presence.
And so he gave us the gift of Confession – but he will not force his forgiveness on us. We have to approach him. He will not heal us if we do not approach him for healing, he will not cleanse us if we do not open the doors of the temple and let him enter. Jesus respects our free will.
So if you’re having a hard time going, if it’s been a while, ask the Holy Spirit to strengthen your will, to help you muster up the courage to stand before God unafraid of the accusations of the enemy. God invites us, entreats us to come to him without fear: to stand before him so that the Spirit, our advocate, can defend us, so that the Son, our redeemer, can offer himself on our behalf, so the Father, the Judge, can pronounce the verdict that he knows we long to hear: “Not guilty.” But you cannot be declared innocent without going to court, without facing your accuser and the judge.
Courage, courage my brothers and sisters! Our Father has not come to condemn, he will not scorn us when we approach him. Jesus is not the accuser, the enemy. No, he is our redeemer, he sends his Holy Spirit, the Advocate, to save us, to lift our burdens, to free us from all that binds us, to heal us and give us new life.
So go to him this Lent, bring your children to him – teach them that they have nothing to fear at his approach, that his gaze is one of love and mercy, not judgment and scorn. His words should be soothing to us: “I absolve you, your sins are forgiven.” They should be like a fresh breeze that makes the soul carefree and at peace.
I have placed guides to the sacrament in the rear of the Church. The cover image is of the good shepherd. Take one. Look it over. It’s not an archaic ritual – it’s Jesus himself, come to free you from your sins and heal you and give you new life.