The life of a Christian is filled with many sorrows and many joys. We have a merciful Lord, who showed us the greatest example of self-sacrificing love, and the final triumph of good over evil, life over death, and love over hatred, in His Passion, Resurrection, and Ascension. This is the source of all of our joy, because the saving work of the Lord shows us that this world and our lives have ultimate meaning to the One Who created us with His own hands.
Because our lives have ultimate meaning, our actions, our words, our deeds and our thoughts also have ultimate meaning. We can say without reservation that the life of a Christian is a life of struggle. We struggle to choose good over evil, to respond to hatred with forgiveness, and to pray for those whom God has brought into our lives.
In this struggle, however, we have a powerful weapon in the Mystery of Repentance, or Confession, because it is our opportunity to begin anew, to let go of the sins which threaten to overwhelm us, and to receive the forgiveness that frees us to live as sons and daughters of God by adoption.
With the Nativity fast approaching next month, we offer these points to encourage you to participate in the sacrament of Confession:
1. We make a good beginning by confessing what we are most ashamed of. It is impossible to remember, or even know, every time we sin between confessions, even when we confess on a regular basis. This is why so many of our morning and evening prayers ask for the forgiveness of sins that are “voluntary or involuntary, known or unknown, committed with knowledge or in ignorance.”
This is not an excuse to withhold sins in confession – in fact, one of the prayers read before our confession warns us not to “depart from the physician unhealed,” a great sin in and of itself. But what is truly profitable in our confession is our willingness to admit the sins we are most ashamed of. Without a doubt, this takes great courage on our part. It means that we cast aside the perfect picture we have of ourselves, along with the praise of men, and acknowledge our need for the healing power of the Lord. When we drag our sins out into the open, they cannot bear the forgiving love of Christ, and so their “life” is taken away – their power over us is destroyed. When we name our sins without reservation, we can then make use of the remedies of the Church, which have been tested in countless generations.
The Lord blesses this kind of boldness and will encourage us by bringing to light other things that are troubling our conscience, whether or not we were aware of them before.
2. God does not change; we do. In the words of St Paul, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, and today, and forever” (Heb 13:8). Our true life – which is eternal – is “hid with Christ in God” (Col 3:3). Our faith is built on an eternal foundation which does not change according to human circumstances, and this is reflected in every aspect of the Church, including our approach to the Mystery of Repentance and the entire sacramental life.
Yet it is easy for us to think that in Confession, we are reconciled to God because we satisfy the requirements of His love and forgiveness. We fall into thinking that when we sin, He is angry with us; when we repent, He forgives and loves us.
But the Apostle John tells us that “God is love” (1 Jn 4:8), and the entire Old Testament speaks to the steadfast love of God for Israel, even when His people strayed from Him (cf Hos 3:1). The saints make the analogy between the sun, which shines on both the holy and the sinful, and God’s grace. God is constant in His love, forgiveness, generosity, and lordship because He does not change. We change, and so our relationship with God changes, for better or worse.
Just as in the parable of the Prodigal Son, confession is our opportunity to return to the Father’s embrace and renounce the sins that have robbed us of our inheritance. When we confess our sins openly and truly desire repentance, we make an effort to love God more than we love ourselves, and, especially, our false picture of ourselves. We throw away our excuses, which will not stand the test of the judgment to come, and ask God for His forgiveness. He gives this to us freely, but we only accept it and make it a part of our lives inasmuch as we empty ourselves of sin – especially those we are most ashamed of – and make an effort to change. In comparison to what God has done for us, our effort will always be small, but He will bless even our weak and sometimes misguided efforts if our true intention is to love Him.
3. The grace of ordination is sufficient for spiritual guidance. Our confession is directed to the Lord Himself, which is why we confess in the presence of His image. He is the standard-bearer of holiness; we compare our actions, thoughts, words, and our entire way of life to Him, not to our neighbor. We confess our sins to Him, because whether we sin alone or against our neighbor, we compromise and undermine the image of God which He has given us.
The Lord hears our confession, and the Church, as His Bride, is present in the witness of the priest. Although early Christians confessed their sins publicly to the entire congregation, in light of our weakness, the Church recognizes that it is easier for us to bear the shame of sin in a confidential relationship with a spiritual father whom we trust, who intercedes for us, and who will be required to give an account for us at the Last Judgment.
We need the the presence of the Church to ensure that we do not rationalize our sins, minimize our weakness, or condemn ourselves too harshly. In all of this, the priest acts as a witness, not a judge. The grace given to him at ordination works regardless of his experience or level of spiritual perception. Our spiritual father prays for us during our confession, asking the Lord to give him a “word” for our spiritual benefit. When we confess our sins faithfully and honestly, the Lord honors our faith by giving His priest the words that we need to hear.
If we judge ourselves harshly, and make no excuse for our sins, our confessor gives us a gentle word to comfort us and remind us that “now is the accepted time” (2 Cor 6:2) for repentance, that we can always make a new beginning, and that we shouldn’t despair over past sins. However, if we are lax, dishonest or unrepentant, then our confessor has to give us a harsh word to wake us up and inspire true repentance. There were many hard sayings of Christ that were an occasion for people to leave His flock. But a stern rebuke from our confessor can till the soil of the heart, which becomes hardened through sin, and once again allow good seed to grow.