In the Name...
There was once a young curate who always preached about confession. No matter what the Sunday texts, he always managed to find a way to bring up the subject. So, one day, his rector told him, "Look, this Sunday is the Feast of St. Joseph and I just want you to preach about him." Well, the day came, the curate entered the pulpit and began, "My friends, today is the Feast of St. Joseph, a man who worked with his hands in his carpentry shop. Now, carpenters make things out of wood, like boxes. Which brings me to think about confessional boxes."
Ah, confession. A suitable topic, though, for a Lenten sermon, isn't it? We hear it's good for the soul. But, what is it - really. Back in 1992, I remember a headline in The Washington Post which read, "Congressmen Go to Confession." At the time, I wondered if this portended some religious revival on Capitol Hill, but, no, the story was about the congressmen who were to be publically named in the House banking scandal. I don't know if you remember that particular event, but, in an attempt to mitigate the political damage, dozens of them came forward, before the indictments, to admit their wrongdoing.
This is a pattern we see repeated whenever a public official or celebrity finds him or herself in trouble for something they've said or done. There's the expression of regret, the verbal apology, the reaction of the offended party, and the check-in at the rehab clinic. Tiger Woods. Mel Gibson, Lindsey Lohan. All this, though, is, in a curious way, a demonstration, in a secular context, of the four elements which together make up the Sacrament of Reconciliation, often called 'confession' for short.
Sacraments are miracles, ways in which God acts in our lives to bring us closer to Him. For example, the Sacrament of Baptism makes our mortal souls immortal and gives us eternal life. In the Sacrament of the Eucharist, ordinary bread and wine become the flesh and blood of Christ and, when we receive them, we are spiritually joined to Him. And in the Sacrament of Reconciliation we receive the forgiveness of our personal sins and the restoration of our personal relationship with God.
Now that last one sounds really good in theory, but, in practice our culture doesn't want to admit that there's anything wrong with our relationship with God or with what we do or how we live and yet that's the whole message of the Gospel. As I said, last week, the great temptation we face is to live sin-free, to blame others for our mistakes, to justify our actions. But, as I also said, it's hard to call Jesus our Saviour unless you recognize you need saving.
In 1977, New York's Citicorp tower was completed. A beautiful building, on the outside, but, the year after the building opened, the engineer, William LeMessurier, came to a frightening realization. The tower was flawed. In his design, he had failed to take into account the wind tunnel effect caused by the neighbouring skyscrapers. Under the right conditions, he discovered, his building could collapse.
He agonized over what to do. If he blew the whistle on himself, he could face lawsuits, bankruptcy, and disgrace, but, he also knew hundreds, if not thousands, of lives were at stake. So, he informed Citicorp, and, at the cost of many millions of dollars, the building was retro-fitted with structural supports. What happened, though, was that LeMessurier's career and reputation were not destroyed and what he did in coming forward is still cited today in schools as an ethical case-study.
"I was wrong. I am sorry.” Someone once called those the six most difficult words in the English language and yet an honestly offered apology can do wonders. In fact, an attorney we see on TV ads who represents victims in medical malpractice cases was quoted as saying his job is harder when doctors own up to their mistakes. The desire to be reconciled has powerful results.
What are the four elements which make up the sacrament of Reconciliation? First, there has to be what we call “contrition” or feeling sorry. It all starts there, inside. We can't be reconciled to anyone, man or God, unless we feel sorry for something we've done or said.
And that leads to the second element, the act of confessing. It's what the congressmen did when they held their press conferences. It's what LeMessurier did when he phoned the Citicorp heads. But, why, we sometimes hear people say, is it necessary in church? Isn't it enough just to say to myself that I'm sorry and won't do it again? No. Because the wrong things I do don't just hurt me, or even other people, they hurt God. That's something we don't hear a lot these days. People treat God as if He's up there and far away when in fact he's up close and personal. He is affected by what we do.
And, as with all the other sacraments, it has to be administered. I can't baptize myself, I can't ordain myself, I can't marry myself, and I can't absolve myself, either. A priest or bishop has to be there to administer the sacrament, because it's the minister which leads to the third element, the “absolution”, the miracle of the wiping away of our sins. And that's the best part. When those congressmen went on TV, they were hoping that the voters would forgive them, but 77 of them were either forced to resign or were voted out of office. They did not receive absolution. LeMessurier was luckier, but he was still taking a risk. He could have been ruined. The good news about confessing to God is that we always receive forgiveness and absolution from Him through his priests.
And the fourth and final element of the sacrament is called the “satisfaction” or “penance” and this has been an object of all sorts of jokes over the years because to human eyes, saying a Lord's Prayer or meditating on a psalm hardly seems proportionate to whatever sins may have been confessed. But, that's actually the point. It isn't proportionate because it can't be. Jesus Christ paid the price for all our sins so that we wouldn't have to. The penance isn't some kind of punishment, it's a spiritual exercise to restore our relationship as Saviour and saved. He never forgets it, but sometimes we need reminding.
This Lent, then, like the Prodigal Son, let's take advantage of this great sacrament. Reconciliation, in this world and the next. After all, that's why Jesus came.
In the Name...