Thursday, March 24, 2005

Signs and Wonders: The Holy Sacraments in the Life of One Unholy Christian Man (VI)

Confession & Penance:

1422 "Those who approach the sacrament of Penance obtain pardon from God's mercy for the offense committed against him, and are, at the same time, reconciled with the Church which they have wounded by their sins and which by charity, by example, and by prayer labors for their conversion."

I. What Is This Sacrament Called?

1423 It is called the sacrament of conversion because it makes sacramentally present Jesus' call to conversion, the first step in returning to the Father from whom one has strayed by sin.

It is called the sacrament of Penance, since it consecrates the Christian sinner's personal and ecclesial steps of conversion, penance, and satisfaction.

1424 It is called the sacrament of confession, since the disclosure or confession of sins to a priest is an essential element of this sacrament. In a profound sense it is also a "confession"—acknowledgment and praise—of the holiness of God and of his mercy toward sinful man.

It is called the sacrament of forgiveness, since by the priest's sacramental absolution God grants the penitent "pardon and peace."

It is called the sacrament of Reconciliation, because it imparts to the sinner the love of God who reconciles: "Be reconciled to God." He who lives by God's merciful love is ready to respond to the Lord's call: "Go; first be reconciled to your brother."

I love the idea of Confession because it keeps me humble and honest; I love Confession itself, however, because in it, I meet Christ, and in him I meet my maker and my only best hope. The sacrament of Confession consists in the fact that I enter the Church in guilt and shame but exit in peace and holiness. As an idea, Confession is one of the most alluring Sacraments. I am intrigued by the almost constant availability of confessing to another human being, as the Bible says we should. As an ecclesial reality, however, I am also daunted by the availability of confession.

Why is Confession so daunting? The sacramental concreteness of it makes humility, and at least a dim sense of holy guilt, inescapable like no mere spiritual “self-awareness” can do. Confession drives humility into us at all the main levels of our being: the mental, the physical, the verbal and the spiritual. At the mental level, the mere act of planning to confess immediately brands you as a sinner. Merely planning to confess marks you as a sucker in some people’s eyes, but as a fledgling saint in the eyes of the Church. Even the dimmest consideration of confessions shows you are a person enlightened enough, by grace, to the simplest of truths: you are not perfect.

Beyond mere planning, at the physical level, the act of entering a confessional forces you to take time out of your busy schedule for the sole purpose of admitting you are a sinner. How embarrassing! Imagine explaining to colleagues why you can’t join them for lunch: “I can’t go; I have to confess my sins.” Your legs become living instruments of humility as they propel you into that infamous corner of shame mixed with hope.

Finally, at the verbal level, even if you are “hidden” behind a curtain or grating, the act of openly declaring your sins to another human being is no small thing. Even on the assumption there is nothing supernatural in the Church, and therefore nothing divine in the confessional, we must still admit how powerful such a practice is for releasing and checking otherwise unbridled antisocial impulses. Call it, if you insist, a mere anthropological ritual of social compromise and inner release. Even then, Confession has an anthropological utility I can’t deny.

Fortunately, though, Confession is not just an anthropological ritual. It is the very scalpel of God. Entering the confessional is like laying on a surgical gurney. Voicing your sins is like lying belly-up under huge bright lights that leave nothing to the imagination. Most importantly, receiving the priest’s absolution is nothing less than encountering the risen Christ present as always to forgive and heal us. And here we are the core, at the spiritual center of man. The Sacraments, remember, are the “seven fingers” of an otherwise purely “spiritual” God [as discussed in Part II of this series]. Confession is, therefore, nothing less than our reaching out by faith to the expert hand of God as he reaches out in love. In Confession, we meet God as he reaches into our world through a man’s tongue and carves out our sin like a surgeon excising a tumor. The priest is not much more – or less – than the surgical glove worn by God, until that final Day when all blinders fall away and we shall know as we are known. All tumors shall have been burned away and there we shall stand: naked and scarred, but whole and holy.

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