Our first two readings proclaim how much God wants our good. The first is like an ode to joy, God being the one who literally moves mountains and valleys and commands the trees of the forest to ensure that Israel’s return from exile will be smooth and jubilant. St. Paul in the second reading joyfully commends and exhorts the Philippians to focus their lives on the Day of Christ, meaning by that the life of the world to come.
At first sight, St. John the Baptist in the Gospel seems to be the spoiler because he is pushing repentance, the break with sin and so the forgiveness of it. It sounds as if he’s focusing on the negative and pushing the button of Catholic guilt!
But, of course, joy and repentance are not opposed. In fact, joy will only be authentic when repentance is also authentic. The experience of true spiritual joy, one that reaches the farthest recesses of the heart, is only possible when the real spoiler which is sin has been renounced, confessed and forgiven, not forgetting the purpose of amendment.
St. Teresa of Avila is famously said to have danced for joy after being to confession, mounting a table and dancing for her sisters with castanets. The burden of sin removed with the certainty of absolution, she became light on her feet. The power of absolution released a profound joy in her which showed itself in dance.
Psalm 32 offers us another image. King David has been hiding his sin from the Lord and he says: “when I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was sapped as in the heat of summer. But the I acknowledged my sin to you. I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord.” And you, Lord, forgave the guilt of my sin.” Then he adds, “You Lord will protect me from trouble and surround me with cries of deliverance.”
And many people say how, after sacramental confession, they feel a great burden lifted. Even if their sin is slight, the sacrament confers the absolute guarantee and certainty of deliverance from all sin. It increases grace and strengthens virtue.
The Lord has not given us the sacrament of confession to make life difficult for us, but to make it easier. The difficulty we experience in the face of confession is possibly more to do with ourselves, with our willingness to sit down and examine our conscience honestly and to find the words to admit and express the truth of our sin. Another difficulty can be saying out loud things that we have preferred to hide away. Possibly there is a question of faith. Do I truly believe in this sacrament as a gift of the crucified and risen Lord? All these difficulties and more need certainly to be taken seriously and worked at calmly and gradually. That’s OK. It can be done.
For me confession is like the closest thing on earth to having a one on one conversation with the Lord. When I pray, I certainly believe the Lord to be with me, but in confession his presence takes on all the certainty and power as you find in the real presence in the Eucharist. It is that real presence but this time in the priest listening to me and receiving my sorrow and pain. It’s like the incident of Jesus with the woman at the well, only it’s me instead of her. When that paralytic was lowered down through the roof in front of Jesus, he will have looked around at the faces peering over him and recognised that of Jesus straight away. A bit like St. Teresa of Avila, after hearing the words of Jesus, “my son, your sins are forgiven you”, he jumped up. We are all that man. Think of the intimate tenderness of Jesus towards the woman caught in adultery as he says “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.” Imagine how that woman must have felt, the inner freedom, the release. We are all that woman. Or think of Peter after he denied Jesus and how Jesus appears to him alone and consoles him, forgiving him. We are all Peter.
It won’t surprise you to know that when I make my confession I tend to rabbit on a bit, but the priest I go to knows me and listens patiently – very patiently. I prefer if possible to go to the same priest precisely because he knows me. Yes, I feel shame for my sins, but as a man he knows what shame is himself, so I brave the shame because as a priest he serves my soul with the pastoral heart of Jesus. Being known to your confessor is not a drawback but is mostly an advantage to your spiritual growth, just like always attending the same doctor. Whereas in ordinary conversation I might be inclined to interrupt someone and say my piece, I keep dumb when my confessor is giving me advice after I have made my confession. I listen to him as if the Lord himself were speaking to me in that sacred moment. Because it is a sacred moment. The confessional, or better the sacrament of confession, is the “forum Dei”, or God’s forum. The priest is privileged to stand between the penitent and Christ, to mediate Christ to the penitent and the penitent to Christ.
When I hear the words of absolution I imagine myself under the Cross with the blood and water from the side of Jesus pouring like a torrent into my inner being, cleansing, healing, renewing, strengthening, uplifting me. As John leaned against the breast of Jesus, I stand beneath his pierced side. Everyone can find their own image of what those words of absolution unleash: it could be the wind of Pentecost, or the fire which Elijah called down from heaven. Or very simply, it could be the gentle breath of Jesus upon the Apostles when he appears to them after his Resurrection. In absolution, the Risen Christ tenderly kisses the soul of his beloved believer and restores our truest and deepest dignity and integrity.
After confession, I perform my penance. Sometimes I like to wait until I get home when I can go over the whole experience of my confession so that I can aim my penance at a particular sin I want the Lord to help me with. Generally, I will not dance after my confession (don’t even try and picture that!), but you might find me playing the piano with a large gin and tonic!
My dear and good friends, be of good courage, be confident, hold firm in the Lord who died out of love for you and approach his tribunal of mercy filled with faith and even excited in hope at the grace of absolution, of divine love, awaiting you. Fear nothing. For what is there to fear? If the Lord is on your side, who can be against you? Don’t even fear yourself. Don’t worry if you forget what to say or how to say it. You’re not sitting a driving test. Don’t worry if you need to cry or even sob. That’s just fine. In fact, it’s wonderful because it shows that your heart has already opened to the Lord. Please don’t fear the priest, at least not this one. For me the penitent is the wounded member of the Body Christ who comes to seek from the healing power of Christ the Head the holiness and power of the divine love. Nothing can go wrong in confession. Everything can only go right. The prize is to have your soul flooded with the fullness of God’s presence once again. What peace! What reassurance! What joy and freedom!
Please. Come this Thursday afternoon or at one of the other times set aside for confession. It will make your day. It will make your Christmas. It will make the angels rejoice in heaven and delight the pierced and sacred heart of the Lord who only knows how to love you.