SACRAMENTS – RECONCILIATION

INTRO So far we have reflected upon the ‘Sacraments of Initiation’ – the Sacraments that plunge us into the holiness of God, gift us to witness to the all Holy God and nourish that holiness in us and the community of holiness, the Church. But we know only too well that our dark shadow side is not far away and that gift of Holiness is being undermined and diminished by what we call ‘sin’. But there is a remedy, a healing of the inner person: the Sacrament of Reconciliation (or as it used to be called, ‘Confession’). Sadly it has become a very neglected Sacrament for a variety of reasons: partly because of the superficial manner of its celebration so many have experienced; partly because sometimes the penitent has not received the merciful non-judgmental welcome they should have done; partly because in recent decades the Church has lost much of its moral authority because of the sins and crimes of clergy sexual abuse. And there will be many more reasons! I hope today we can ‘revisit’ this Sacrament of unconditional love and forgiveness and so discover treasure hidden in a field! But before we do, let us explore a little this famous painting by the Dutch Master Rembrandt and perhaps see how it illuminates the joy and tenderness of ‘homecoming’ which this Sacrament should always be…

[1] Let us begin by asking ‘What is sin’? If God is Love, then all holiness is Love: and therefore sin is by definition to diminishing or rejection of Love. It is not the breaking of rules, civil or ecclesiastical: it is a wilful saying ‘no’ to Love (which may or may not involve breaking rules). Just as ‘love’ is not really a noun – a thing in itself – but rather a verb, the active positive interaction between persons; so sin also is not really a noun – a thing which is sinful – but a verb, the negative action or inaction of person in relationship to ‘another’. For example, stealing is wrong, but is a starving parent who steals to feed their child committing sin? St Thomas Aquinas would certainly say ‘NO!’ Another example: a driver speeding and crossing red lights for the fun of it without any regard to people’s safety is not only breaking a rule, it is sinful. But speeding and crossing red lights because you have a dying person in your car, or a pregnant mother just about to give birth is still breaking the rules but is likely to be a highly commendable and virtuous action seeking to save a life!  Yet the objective action is the same in both cases! Again: missing Sunday Mass because you do not care or as a deliberate rebellion against God is likely to be sinful,  but missing Sunday Mass because you are ill or you are caring for a sick family member is virtuous! Yet the objective action is the same! On a more dramatic scale, abortion is wrong, but the mother (and father?) who genuinely feels she has no alternative, perhaps bullied into it by her parents or partner, is herself a victim. The sin is likely to belong to those who pressurised her, especially as she might carry the inner scars for many years. The words of Jesus, ‘judge not and you will not be judged’ come to mind! So we must make a distinction between wrong actions and sinful people! All sin is a deliberate, knowing and willed diminishing, or denial or neglect of Love. Just as Love is an act of freedom, so is sin – I freely choose! The less freedom (external or internal) that I have the less responsibility for sinning I carry.

[2] The Sacrament of Reconciliation is therefore the sacred encounter with the all-merciful God who receives the ‘gift’ of our sin and transforms it into a door way to love and holiness. It is a meeting with the saving and forgiving Christ alive and acting through His Body the Church in which He seeks to liberate love in us, restore holiness in us, guide us to discover our true self made in the image and likeness of the Divine Love. He is the true and faithful ‘elder brother’ who comes searching for us when we wander away down wrong paths and brings us home to our Father’s loving and healing embrace; He is the Good Shepherd who comes searching for one that has got himself lost and bring us back to the safety of the flock where there is friendship, love and good pasture – companions who welcome us home, and friends who will help and encourage us on our journey in the ways of holiness! Jesus has already carried the Cross of our inner guilt and won the victory that transforms it into peace and holiness – the Tree of Death becomes the Tree of New Life because of the loving embrace of our servant brother and saviour, Jesus! 

[3] When does God forgive us? Is it when we repent?, or when we go to confession? Is it when we recognise we have done wrong and try to change our behaviour or attitude?  NO! The amazing reality of God’s all-pervading mercy is that it predates not only our repentance , it pre-dates our sin! We were forgiven on the Cross of Christ! He has already taken the burden from us. When Jesus cried out from the Cross ‘Father forgive them…’ we were forgiven (Luke 23:34). Love vanquished hate and mercy quenched vengeance – the Victory of forgiveness was won then. ‘It is completed’ (John 19: 30). We do not earn God’s forgiveness by our repentance, by our doing reparation, by performing our penance – for we can never earn God’s love otherwise it would be payment and not love! And the Grace of God’s mercy is a free gift never refused, for God will never ever stop loving us. His Love us not dependent upon our obeying His commandments! Our living Christ’s New Life, New Humanity, is dependent rather on our being loved! Everything in the Christian life, everything in the journey of the disciple is response to the already poured out love, mercy and goodness of God in to our lives. God wants to liberate us from being driven, always seeking to justify ourselves by the work we do for Him. Instead our working for the Kingdom is our response to being loved and desiring with all our heart to share the Good News of the inalienable dignity and value of every person, indeed of all creation. We must stop trying to earn God’s love – that is futile. That is the meaning of Jesus’ parable of the workers in the Vineyard (Matthew 20: 1-15). 

[4] If we are already forgiven, what is the point of going to Reconciliation (or Confession)? It is fascinating that at a time when vicious exposés and public confessions are so popular on TV screens, when there are long waiting lists to see counsellors and psychiatrists, we have neglected the Church’s centuries old healing sacrament of mercy! The purpose of this sacrament is that we might access, receive, the gift already given to us. An analogy: someone gives us a Christmas gift, beautifully wrapped. We were not in at the time, did not notice it lying around somewhere in our home and did not open it. It was given, but we did not receive it. The Sacrament of Reconciliation is not us trying to persuade God to forgive us – it is God trying to persuade us to welcome His forgiveness! In my experience as a priest hearing confessions and celebrating this Sacrament with people for 48 years now, the problem is never with God forgiving us – it is always with us not forgiving ourselves (or others!) and so the sin and guild holds its power to hurt and wound and divide. I think that is what is meant in the words of the Risen Christ to His disciples on that first Easter Evening:  ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. For those whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven; for those sins you retain, they are retained.’ (John 20: 22). Without going into the biblical background of this formula of empowering His Church, it seems to me to contain a warning to us – do not hang on to unforgiveness – of yourself or of others – because then sin retains its power to distort and wound your life, the life of the community, the fabric of creation! Be as generous as the Holy Spirit you have received, the totally unmerited free gift of God’s merciful loving and discover the ‘freedom of the Children of God’ (Romans 8: 14-17 ) as ‘perfect love casts out all fear’ (1 John 4: 18).

[5] Why go to the priest and speak out my failures? This is a question of both of the role and ministry of the priest/shepherd in the Christian community and our need for speaking out our hidden self and finding healing acceptance. In each sacrament the priest represents the community, and speaks in the name of Christ alive in the community of the Body of Christ. He (sadly still only ever ‘he’ in our Church – may the Holy Spirit change us!), he articulates, proclaims to liberating Word of Christ that the Risen Lord speaks to and through that community that is His Body. When the priest utters the Sacramental words of Absolution with (where possible and appropriate) the ‘laying on of hands’, he is not imparting God’s forgiveness (he is not the mediator – for we have only one mediator – the Christ), but he declares that forgiveness to the penitent – and it is the Christ of the Community that embraces the  ‘sinner’. In other words, you and I who are members of the community of Christ’s Body are welcoming home and expressing the free gift of divine mercy and forgiveness. That is why this Sacrament is to build forgiving and merciful parish communities, welcoming each person in their personal chaos (known or unknown). This Sacrament has the power and function of building our parish communities as ‘field hospitals’ of welcoming, accepting and non-judgmental healing love (in the words of Pope Francis). For our sin wounds the Body of Christ. If all sin is a neglect or denial of love and we are all part of building up the Body of Christ in love, then our sin (however hidden) diminishes the reality and power of Love in the Church. We have sinned against our sisters and brothers in the Church, we have wounded the witness of the Church, the Body of Christ to the world as love among us and in us is diminished. That is why in Reconciliation, we go to the community (represented by the priest) with a repentant heart and let ourselves be forgiven by our community who is Christ. Sin is never a private matter between ourselves and God for it always impacts negatively on the witness of love offered by the Church to our world hungry for love. 

[6] We have a human need to speak out our hidden darker side for love’s acceptance to bring us inner freedom. Before God there are no secrets for God knows us through and through and the more He knows us the more God loves us! But we keep our dark secrets, our ‘guilty self’ hidden from sight. This wounds us! This continues to limit our ‘freedom for love’. We need to speak that out in order for light to penetrate our dark shadows, to allow healing balm of love to be poured into our wounded self. The priest is called to be Christ the Good Samaritan, pouring oil of healing and wine of compassion into the wounds our sin has inflicted upon ourselves as well as others. This speaking our truth and having it accepted by another flesh and blood person without judgment or condemnation is the gift offered in this sacrament and the expectation of the Church upon the priest who is called only to minister the unconditional love and mercy of God Who is Love.

[7] The Sacrament of Reconciliation provides also an opportunity to seek guidance especially about moral dilemmas, life choices and spiritual growth. Most people do not have their own Spiritual Director, but the absolute confidentiality of this Sacrament enables a  person to find healing for wounds, wisdom about decisions and a resource to help them identify areas for growth in their inner journey of discipleship. This might concern difficulties in prayer, sharing spiritual experiences, searching out God’s call in our lives and almost anything and everything that affects my growing in love for Christ and walking the Way of the disciple in mission to our world. 

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