The First Sunday of Lent [C]
Deuteronomy 26:4-10 + Romans 10:8-13 + Luke 4:1-13
February 14, 2016
This Lent the Church is in the midst of the Jubilee Year that Pope Francis called for, focusing on God’s gift of Divine Mercy. The Pope asked that this Jubilee Year emphasize the Sacrament of Confession. In our own diocesan cathedral, this emphasis is being put into practice every four weeks: priests are hearing confessions during a 24-hour period, from Noon on a given day until Noon the next day. Here in this parish during Lent, confessions are being heard before and after every Mass: both weekend and weekday Masses.
Along with the celebration of the Sacrament of Confession, it’s important also to reflect on the truths about this sacrament. The Catechism composed during the papacy of St. John Paul II is a tremendous way to do so. This First Sunday of Lent is a good time to reflect on the truths of our Faith about the power of sacramental confession.
The Catechism’s first point here is from John 20. The Catechism quotes the Bible directly, setting down the scriptural foundation for the Sacrament of Confession. The Catechism quotes from John’s account of what Jesus chose to do on the very evening of Easter Sunday. The evangelist notes how Jesus, on “the evening of” His Resurrection, showed Himself to His apostles, “breathed on them, and said to them: ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained’”.
On the evening of His Resurrection, Jesus did not say: “Well, dear apostles of mine, I want you to go to the ends of the earth and tell everyone that if they just confess their sins directly to God, their sins will be forgiven.” Instead, Jesus handed over to the apostles the power not only to forgive sins, but also to retain sins, which is to say, to hold sins bound and unforgiven. Why did Jesus hand this divine power over to fallible men? There are several reasons, but they boil down to three groups of reasons.
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The first set of reasons why Jesus established the Sacrament of Confession has to do with the nature of the sinner. God established a sacrament where we have to confess our sins to another human being—in fact, a fellow sinner—in order to receive the benefits of sacramental confession. Most of these benefits are spiritual, but some are simply psychological.
God knows us sinners better than we know ourselves. God knows that if the default for the forgiveness of sins were the direct confession of one’s sins to God, then the average sinner would grow much weaker over time in his battle against sin. The direct confession of one’s sins to God is less effective than the confession of one’s sins to God through a priest, because it’s all too easy to presume upon God’s goodness, which is to say, to commit the sin of presumption.
For example, if you start a confession of your sins directly to God and have trouble remembering some of your sins, it’s easy to say to yourself, “Well, God knows everything. I don’t have to confess all of my sins.” That begins a habit by which the sinner presumes more and more on God’s goodness, and demands less and less from oneself. The same is true regarding the nature and circumstances of our sins. It’s easy when confessing one’s sins directly to God to be vague and to confess one’s sins in generalities, leaving out things that we’d rather leave unsaid.
To flip all of this around and look at it from the perspective of sacramental confession: we know that the priest is not likely to know any of our sins, especially if we go to confession behind a screen. The burden, then, is on the penitent—that is, the one going to confession—to make a thorough confession. In fact, for the sake of fostering thorough confessions, the Church requires that in sacramental confession, a penitent confess all mortal sins committed since one’s last good confession. Furthermore, these mortal sins have to be confessed in both kind and number: that is, the penitent has to clearly identify the kind of sin that was committed, and how many times it was committed.
Unfortunately, in the 20+ years that I’ve been a priest, it’s grown more common for people to begin their confessions by saying something like, “I’ve done lots of bad things”, or “I’ve not been a very good person over the last few months”, or “I’ve really struggled lately to follow Jesus”, and then just stop. Those may well be honest admissions of where one stands spiritually, but we have to be specific in the Sacrament of Confession. The priest can certainly help a penitent during Confession, but the penitent holds the responsibility for making a thorough examination of conscience before ever entering the confessional. This forces us to look more honestly at ourselves, and present ourselves more honestly to God. But one of the beauties of this sacrament is that the more honest we are about our sinfulness, the more we appreciate the beauty and abundance of God’s mercy.
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The second set of reasons why Jesus established the Sacrament of Confession has to do with the nature of the Church. The priest in Confession represents not only God. The priest also represents the Church: that is, the other members of the Body of Christ. One of the many problems with the idea of just confessing one’s sins directly to God is that our sins are offenses not only against God. Many of our sins are also offenses against our neighbor.
When our Savior Jesus taught His disciples about God’s commandments, He explained that there are really only two: to love God, and to love one’s neighbor. This two-fold command is even symbolized by the Cross on which Jesus died for us. The Cross has two beams: a vertical beam that symbolizes the love that is meant to flow between me and God, and the horizontal beam that symbolizes the love that is meant to flow between me and my neighbors. Jesus Christ is fully God and fully man, and the priest in Confession represents both God and man: my God and my neighbors.
One of the aspects of the sacrament that shows this is the priest assigning a penance. This penance is carried out once the confession is over, after the penitent has been absolved. The penance is not a means of earning forgiveness, because the forgiveness has already been given by the time the penance is carried out. But the penance represents, even if only in a small way, the fact that after being forgiven, the penitent still has a responsibility to do what’s in his power to build up the relationships damaged by his sins: both his relationship with God, and his relationships with his neighbors. The penitent has restitution to make, to restore inasmuch as he’s able what he took, or what he tore down by his sins. That penance is assigned not by oneself, but by the priest who represents both our God and our neighbors.
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The third set of reasons why Jesus established the Sacrament of Confession has to do with the nature of God and His graces. Remember what Jesus said on the evening of His Resurrection. He “breathed on [the apostles], and said to them: ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” It was through the grace of the Holy Spirit that Jesus gave His apostles the power to forgive or retain sins. It’s this same Holy Spirit who breathes on the penitent in the Sacrament of Confession, and if we know one thing about the Holy Spirit, it’s that His love is boundless and overflowing. The Holy Spirit is never satisfied to give life, when He can give life abundantly.
In the Sacrament of Confession, God not only forgives your sins. God gives you not only the gift of reconciliation with Him and His Church, but many other gifts as well. In the Sacrament of Confession God not only remits the eternal and at least some temporal punishment that you are due. God also fills you with the gifts of peace, serenity of conscience, spiritual consolation, and perhaps most importantly, an increase of spiritual strength for the battle of daily Christian life.
This spiritual strength for the battle of what many saints call “spiritual warfare” is a tremendous benefit of the Sacrament of Confession, and is why we ought to make a sacramental confession even if we don’t have any mortal sins, but only venial sins, to confess. Some people think of Confession as concerning only the past, and only washing away the sins of one’s past. But the Holy Spirit is never that stingy in giving graces through the Sacraments. Confession is not only about the past: it’s also about the future. Confession is not only about washing away one’s past sins: it’s also about God equipping us through His grace for the days ahead, so that we might love God and neighbor as God Himself loves.
As we are in the midst of the Jubilee Year of Mercy, consider the Sacrament of Confession as a “sacrament of mercy”. Or to use a metaphor, consider that the Sacrament of Confession is meant to equip you to serve as a “mirror of mercy”. That is to say, the Sacrament of Confession is not only about the forgiveness of your sins: Confession is also about the forgiveness of your neighbor’s sins. How is this true?
Remember that one of the fruits of sacramental confession is “an increase of spiritual strength for the Christian battle.” What’s one of hardest parts of “Christian battle” if not forgiving those who have wronged you? Every adult here can tell you from hard experience that of all the things that Jesus asks of us as His disciples, forgiving those who have hurt us ranks among the very hardest. In fact, there are times in every disciple’s life when it’s so difficult to forgive, that it would be impossible to forgive through our human efforts alone. But we are never alone. The divine forgiveness that we receive when our sins are forgiven in Confession, strengthens us to more easily offer human forgiveness to those who have wronged us. This simply builds upon one of the petitions of the prayer that Jesus taught us: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
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In the Old Testament, the people of Israel were required to give the “first fruits” of their harvests to God. These “first fruits” were the richest part of the harvest: the best and most precious that they had to offer to the Lord.
In the New Testament, on “the evening of that day” of the Resurrection, “the first day of the week… Jesus came and stood among [His apostles] and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’ When He had said this, He showed them His hands and His side. … Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.’ … He breathed on them, and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’”
The Sacrament of Confession and the peace that flows from it are the “first fruits” of Jesus’ Resurrection. Jesus is calling you as His disciple to accept this gift: to receive the forgiveness of your own sins, and to help you be a co-worker with the Lord in extending to others the riches of mercy, forgiveness, and peace.
 John 20:19,22-23.