“To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul.” This response to today’s psalm sums up what Advent is all about. If Advent means the coming of the Lord, lifting up my soul to him means going out to meet him. To lift up my soul means to offer it to the Lord, to want him to have it, to take it, to make it his own. Why else does he come if not to take our souls to himself, provided we have first offered them to him? To lift up your soul to him is not just to offer him a prayer, however fervent: no, it is to offer your very self.
“To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul.” The sense of these words is that we keep lifting up our soul to him. It is something ongoing, a commitment of love and, yes, of sacrifice. It means that we won’t rest until he has taken us. Lifting up our soul suggests it has been down and away from the Lord. In life, that can happen for short or extended periods in which we withdraw from him and try to hide from him. But the main thing is to keep lifting our soul back up to him as many times, and for as long, as it takes. Without him, we are down and out. With him, we are raised up and in communion with him.
“To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul.” Who among us can say that he is without sin? As we lift up our souls to him, it is in that very action of moving towards him that his love comes towards us and burns away our sin. Advent is a penitential season, every bit as penitential as Lent. Lent prepares us to welcome him at his resurrection from the dead. Advent prepares us to welcome him at the resurrection of all humanity from the dead. As in Lent, so in Advent, we prepare our souls for lifting up to him through penance, fasting, almsgiving and through the confession of our sins.
Sin is not so much the breaking of a commandment, although it is also that. It is more importantly the weakening or breaking of our relationship with Christ. The ten commandments, the beatitudes, the avoidance of the seven capital sins and of the other classifications of wrongful behaviour found in the doctrine of the Church all have one purpose: to preserve intact the grace of our baptism. The grace of baptism is what? It is our relationship with Jesus Christ, our bond of union and communion with him. To ignore our sins is to ignore our relationship with Christ. Not to lift up our souls to him for forgiveness of sin in the way he himself has asked us to do so is to ignore the gift of his crucified love. Few of us would think of not receiving communion, the sacrament which feeds our union with Jesus. But how many have set aside the sacrament of reconciliation from their spiritual lives, the sacrament which restores our union with Jesus if we have broken it in mortal sin, or which strengthens and preserves it if we have weakened and endangered it in venial sin!
There are those who cannot receive the sacraments for particular reasons even although they would want to. Yet sometimes it seems that those who can receive them do not want to. In Advent, quoting the second reading, St. Paul “urges and appeals to you in the Lord Jesus to make more and more progress in the kind of life that you are meant to live: the life that God wants, as you learnt it from us …. You have not forgotten, he continues, the instructions we gave you on the authority of the Lord Jesus.” Among those instructions are the words of Jesus to the Apostles, “those whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven; those whose sins you retain, they are retained.” Here Jesus refers to the sacrament of reconciliation.
To be sure the Church herself prescribes that only those conscious of mortal sin must go to confession for its remission, and even then, only once per year is established or as often as someone in mortal sin intends to receive holy communion. But St. Augustine advises us to receive the sacrament of confession regularly because, he says, while a venial sin may only be a light weight in the soul, the accumulation of them can become deadly if left unconfessed.
There can be many reasons why people do not want and may even find it impossible to go to confession. Nerves or fear, a feeling that it’s useless to keep confessing the same things over and over again, a loss of trust in the priest or in priests in general, a belief that speaking to God privately is enough despite Christ’s institution of the sacrament, a loss of the sense of sin, a loss of the sense of the reality of God, and sometimes even a quiet disbelief in the spiritual realm at all. Some reasons are more understandable than others. But whatever the reason, it can be addressed gradually, carefully and with patience and understanding. The fact of faith remains, however, that the sacrament of confession is the ordinary way which Christ himself has wanted for the forgiveness of sins, both venial and mortal.
Sin is also purged, it is true, by prayer, penance, fasting, charity, the corporal and spiritual works of mercy and by worthy reception of the Eucharist. Since sin, however, can be very subtle and insinuates itself into the way we think as well as into our thoughts, into the way we want as well as into our wants; since it can embed and entrench itself in our psyche, our feelings and even our bodies: the putting into words and speaking out in confession of sin is a powerful antidote to it. The psychological and therapeutic value of “spitting them out” is, if nothing else, of immense worth in bringing peace and a sense of relief and can contribute not a little to our psychological health. We are rational creatures, made to communicate in words the truth around us and the truth within us. Christ himself is the Word of God. In confession he wants to hear the repentant words of man or woman so that in turn he can speak through the priest those words which terrorize Satan and which are more powerful than any weapon on earth: I absolve you from all your sins, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Those words are as powerful as “this is my body; this is my blood.” They confer on your dear soul, the soul you have lifted up to the Lord, the infinite power of his death and resurrection: that death which destroyed all sin is now applied to your sin; the resurrection that restored all life restores your soul to the beauty of sanctifying grace, that is of peaceful union with God.
You might think I am exaggerating, but I assure you I am not. I, as I hope every thinking priest, have given my life to bring to God’s people, to you, three principal things: the Word of God, the Eucharist and the absolution of sins. You might think that you can’t keep going back for absolution for the same things. Why, then, do you keep coming back for holy communion? Why do you keep going back to the doctor when you keep suffering from the same health issues? If you didn’t, you’d be much worse off. Because we don’t see the state of our souls we don’t think perhaps that our sin matters. Indeed, it does. Even more than physical illness. Maybe you have not been to confession for a while and don’t know what to say or how to prepare. Well, I’m sure the internet will tell you, or an old prayer book lying about the house, or a friend or, indeed, me. In the confessional, everyone is a welcome guest. Heaven is anticipating the joy of the sinner’s repentance. Hell is trembling because the power of Christ’s death is about to be extended to another soul. The penitent is a sacred treasure. The priest as a man does not matter. Don’t look at the man, look at the office he holds and the One from whom he received it. Come now, do not ignore the immense gift of consolation and forgiveness which this sacrament uniquely provides. As you enter the confessional door, say rather with Advent confidence, “To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul.” You will not be disappointed.