Sunday, December 6, 2015

Repentance and Mercy

Yesterday I was a passing through Fort Collins so I stopped off to see my grandmother. She likes to host a family Christmas party, and this year it's not for another two weeks yet, but she was already making preparations and she was excited to show me how she was decorating her little house for her party. She understands the importance of preparing well to receive people.

Back in September, Pope Francis visited the United States. Preparation for this visit was underway for a year beforehand. The right sites had to be selected and set up, traffic had to be rerouted. Artists and craftsmen were enlisted to create the sanctuary furniture at the various papal masses that the pope would use just once. Chairs were made with the finest care for the pope to sit in for just an hour or two. No one's ever made a chair for my visit, and that is right and just, but for the Pope we make chairs. For the right events, we all understand the importance of preparing well to receive people.

Some of you might host parties through this holiday season, and before you do, you'll probably clean your house more thoroughly than you ordinarily do. If you're hosting guests, you want to make sure they have a nice time. Now imagine this, imagine that one of your guests calls you up ahead of time and says that they're friends with the queen of England and that the queen wants to come to your Christmas party as well. Absurd, I know, but just imagine. If the queen of England was coming to your house, I guarantee you'd clean it like you've never cleaned before. If you know a friend with nicer dishes than you, you'll call them up to borrow them. When somebody of great importance is coming, you naturally go out of your way to make all the preparations you can.

In this gospel today we hear John the Baptist saying that someone cooler and more important than the queen of England is coming (Let's just pretend that John the Baptist knew about the queen of England). Someone more important than the queen of England is coming. He's telling us that Jesus is coming! And he's not just coming to have dinner with us, he's coming to be king of the world, and that starts with being king of our hearts. Jesus wants your heart to be his throne.

This is a tall order, so luckily, John the Baptist also tells us how to make the right preparation: a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Jesus doesn't care if you've vacuumed your carpet or dusted your house, he wants you to make sure you've cleaned your heart.

Remember, John the Baptist showed up and started preaching before Jesus did, so John had a lot of followers while everyone was waiting for the savior John was preaching about. John would give his followers a baptism of repentance. He'd wash them in the Jordan River as a sign that they were washed clean and turning away from their old way of life. This foreshadowed the sacraments of baptism and confession.

What John did is always called a baptism of repentance, and this word repentance is important. To repent is to acknowledge that I have done bad in the past, and that I want to change my ways in the future. To repent is to acknowledge that I am a sinner in need of mercy. Most of us were baptized as infants, and our parents acknowledged for us that we had inherited the original sin of Adam and Even and thus needed God's mercy.

But since our baptism, every one of us have sinned and have needed to experience God's mercy anew. For this, he gave us the sacrament of Confession. Confession is where we participate anew in this repentance that John the Baptist spoke of. But as Catholics, we all have a strained relationship with Confession, so I want to review the basics.

Confession is not a creation of the Church, it's a gift from God to extend his forgiveness of sins to the whole world. Jesus gave the Holy Spirit to his apostles and said "Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained" (John 20:23) Jesus gave his apostles the authority to forgive sins. That authority was passed to the bishops, who in turn pass it to the priests. To forgive sins is truly a powerful act because it restores the proper balance and proper relationship of love between the Father and his son or daughter. So the priest acts with real but delegated authority to forgive sins.

Jesus chose to make this power present through his priests because he wants us to seek him together. As Christians and as members of the Body of Christ, we minister to each other, and the forgiveness of sins is a unique ministry that the priest offers to the laity. He didn't tell us to say we're sorry in our hearts because he doesn't want it to be a "me and Jesus" sort of relationship. We seek God together. No matter how big or small your sin is, he wants you to hear those words, "I forgive you," not just in your heart but with your ears.

So what do we say by our actions if we avoid the beautiful sacrament of Confession? What does it mean if we say, "Yeah, that may work for others, but not for me." Here's what I'm afraid it says if we decide we don't need Confession: If I avoid Confession and say that I don't need it, then by my actions I am saying I don't need God's mercy. After we die there are only two options, heaven or hell, and if I don't depend on God's mercy in Confession, that means that either I don't want heaven or I don't think I need his mercy to get there. Whatever tough guy excuses we make for why we don't need Confession are really just manifestations of pride, and they won't get us to heaven. Because If I don't go to Confession, it means I'm trying to get to heaven by my own merit, and not by God's grace, and that will never work.

All three of the priests here love Confession. I love hearing Confessions, and I love going to Confession even though I get nervous like everyone else. I go to the same priest every month for Confession, and I always worry that he'll get tired or annoyed that I confess the same things every time. As we lead up to Christmas, there'll be several extended opportunities for Confession. And if none of the scheduled times work for you, call one of us up, we'll schedule a time just for you because this is important. If it's been a long time, that's ok, what matters is that you're there. No priest would get mad that it's been a long time, he'll just be glad you're there. If you don't remember how to go to Confession, just tell the priest. Again, he won't be mad, he'll just be glad you're there and he'll happily walk you through it.

So please, everyone, say yes to God's mercy offered in Confession. And not just during this Advent season, but all through the year, ideally once a month. God offers his mercy to all of us, and it's up to each one of us to say yes.

No comments:

Post a Comment