I know of a young woman in the Detroit area who is making her way back to the Church. She walked away from the Church for a number of years and her story goes something like this. She grew up in a very large suburban parish. Went to Mass every Sunday with her parents and every year she was enrolled in the religious education program. The teen years were a particularly volatile time for her and she started becoming attracted to doing what she called “dumb stuff.” By the time Confirmation came around she had done, again in her words, “lots of dumb stuff,” and she was hoping for some sort of a clean break and a fresh start.
As part of her Confirmation preparation, there was a penance service the night before she received the sacrament. This young woman spoke of how for nearly two weeks straight she had been thinking and praying about going to confession and doing all she could to prepare herself.
The evening finally came and, a number of visiting priests were brought in to help hear confession. She found herself in line with one of those visiting priests and she noticed the other teens ahead of her were coming back from the sacrament rather quickly. “Man, they must all be really good kids!” she thought. Finally it was her turn to celebrate the sacrament and as she met the priest he told her, “Tell me one sin.” “Huh?!” she said. “Tell me one sin,” he repeated. “But Father,” she answered, “I don’t have one sin. I’ve got lots of sins. I’ve done some bad stuff.” “We don’t have time for all that,” he said, “There are lots of people out there.” And when she heard that, she shot back, “Then, forget it!” and she walked out. That moment she said, along with a couple of other incidents, made her decide to just throw the whole faith out the window. “If they’re not going to take all this seriously,” she said, “Why should I.”
That young woman from Detroit was looking for a fresh start, and a new beginning. And on this Second Sunday of Advent John the Baptist appears on the scene, telling us prepare yourselves for a fresh start, prepare yourselves for a new beginning, but first you must repent. To prepare yourselves for the new life of grace and mercy and peace that Jesus wants to bring you, you must first repent. This young woman from Detroit serves as a great reminder of what psychologist and psychiatrist have increasingly been saying for years now. If we truly want to be emotionally well, we must own up to what we have done; we must be accountable. We must stop blaming others for our problems. We must, in John the Baptist’s words, repent.
This woman from Detroit stands also as a great reminder that repentance is not merely some external sort of command that is issued by prophets like John the Baptist. There is deep within all of us a felt need to expunge from our memories and our minds and our hearts those things that we have done that have hurt others and ourselves. Much like our body, when attacked by a virus, will physically try to expel that virus from our system, so too the soul wants to do the very same thing when sin is present. For just as sickness is contrary to health, so too is sin contrary to the fullness of life we were made for. And just as the body usually returns to health after it throws up, though the moment of expulsion might not be all that pleasant, so too does the soul.
The young woman from Detroit, and all of us, long in the words of today’s first reading to, “Take off the robes of mourning and misery” that come from our sins and to exchange them for the garments of joy and peace that come from receiving the Lord’s mercy and grace and love. And that happens in a unique and wonderful way in the great gift Jesus has left us in the sacrament of reconciliation.
“Oh, this desire, this need of the Father of Mercies to retrieve His lost child and give him life! That is the Heart of God! Remember that, each time you pick yourself up after a fall, the feast of the prodigal son is renewed. Your Father in Heaven clothes you again in His most beautiful cloak, puts a ring on your finger, and tells you to dance with joy. In a living faith, you will not approach the confessional with dragging feet, but as if you were going to a feast, even if you have to make a great effort each time to humble yourself and to conquer the monotony of the routine. After the absolution, you should dance like the prodigal son did at the request and for the joy of his father. We do not dance enough in the spiritual life.” From Fr. Jean D’Elbee’s book, I believe in love.
Contrary to how many people think, the Church is not “hung up on” guilt and sin. What the Church is “hung up on” is freedom, the Church is “hung up on” virtue; the Church is “hung up on” wanting us to live lives of integrity and authenticity; and finally the Church is “hung up on” love. Sin is merely the failure to live all of these things well. And the beautiful gift of confession allows us all to leave behind our failures and to begin all over again in our lives. That’s what the young woman from Detroit wanted to do the night before her confirmation, but didn’t get the chance. That’s what many of us, perhaps, have been wanting to do for years: to begin again, to start anew, to change directions, to leave behind something that’s been keeping us from true freedom and joy. If this is so, come to the sacrament! It is the single most under-used and under-valued gift God has given us.
Jesus is not calling you to be just a good person, that’s boring. Christianity is much more than just being a good person, it’s so much more than that. Jesus is calling you to be a new person, a new creation, not just converted in mind but transformed in body and soul. And living as a new creation means that we hate and avoid sin right now, not out of fear of punishment, but because of who we are, we are Christ’s. We belong to Christ, as Christians we are little Christs and so we say, “I avoid sin because it’s just not me.” Love is what unites us to Jesus, not obedience or fear, but authentic love.
In these days of trying to find a great deal on a gift for a loved one, the greatest deal in town just might be the one found in confession. We enter wearing robes of mourning and sorrow and leave wrapped in God’s love and mercy with a chance to start all over again. May the Lord bring to completion the good work He has begun in all of us.
Let us be great Saints,
Fr. Christopher J. Ankley