It is common when you hear the confessions of children that the child comes with a guide to confession in his or her hand or there is one set out on the chair or pew where the child will confess. They have the standard formula: “Bless me Father, for I have sinned, it has been __________ since my last confession.” One time, this child sits down, picks of the card with the guide and begins, “Bless me Father for I have sinned, it has been…” he pauses, looks puzzled, and says, “hard”? since my last confession.” I just smiled and said, “yes, it probably has been hard. That’s what sin does to us. It makes life hard.”
Advent, like a little Lent, is a time when we prepare the way of the Lord, and the sacrament of confession is an important gift the Lord gives us in this regard, to make straight his paths, but most of us find it hard to confess. Sometimes we find confession frustrating because we don’t see the good fruits of it – we find ourselves confessing the same things over and over – where’s the conversion or real change in my life?
We see in the figure of John the Baptist someone sent by the Lord to call us to repentance. He is the precursor, the one who points the way to Christ and prepares us to meet the Lord. “At that time Jerusalem, all Judea, and the whole region around the Jordan were going out to him and were being baptized by him… as they acknowledged their sins.” For me, this is the hardest part about confession – the acknowledgment of my sins – that I have done something wrong; that I am responsible for what I’ve done, and that I am truly sorry. Repentance which entails sorrow and abhorrence of sins committed, and the firm purpose of sinning no more in the future, is the first of the three “acts of the penitent” necessary for a good confession. The others are the confession or disclosure of sins to the priest, and the intention to make reparation and do works of reparation, i.e., to do penance. All this comes before absolution and if the acts of the penitent are lacking, the absolution is blocked, or we can say, the person has put forth an impediment to the grace of God. And if that is the case, it is very likely that we will not see conversion – any good fruits – if repentance is lacking. If we got into the mess because of our own weakness, we are not going to get out of it by our own strength. We need God’s grace.
When John the Baptist sees the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he really challenges them about their lack of repentance. He makes it sound like they are coming to get baptized without a pure motive: “You brood of vipers!” he calls them. We can learn from what John says to them some of the things that keep us from making a good confession. The first thing he says (after calling them a brood of vipers) is to ask, “Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?” Do we approach confession out of fear of Hell or judgment? Repentance (also called contrition) should be inspired by motives that arise from faith in a merciful and loving God. Something is lacking in our faith if we are coming to confession out of fear of God’s wrath or if we look at confession merely as a duty or obligation of the law. (It is better to confess with imperfect contrition – out of fear – than not to confess at all), but real and lasting conversion is from a response of love, not of fear. The Pharisees were scrupulous about keeping the law, but in them was a lack of true conversion. The next thing John the Baptist does is chide them for their presumption, “We have Abraham as our Father.” They presume, “We come from good stock; we’ve kept the tradition; we’ve kept all the rules.” It’s like telling the priest all the good things we’ve done since our last confession to balance out our sins, or we tell him all the bad things we haven’t done as a way of saying how good we’ve really been. John retorts, “For I tell you, God can raise up children to Abraham from these stones.” In other words, it is God who raises us up – our salvation is his work, not the fruit of our goodness, efforts, or our privilege. Like the Pharisees and the Sadducees, we can tend to distance ourselves from our sins in the confession, blaming others for our sins to excuse our actions. How sorry are we if we make excuses, or if we think that in some way the other deserved our anger or is responsible, in part, for the way we acted?
Repentance is necessary for forgiveness and conversion, but one “mightier than I” is necessary for the separation of me from my sins. The image of the Lord wielding the winnowing fan is not to separate the sinners from the saints but to separate us from our sins. He wants to gather us into his barn, but we have to entrust ourselves to his mercy. The prayer over the offerings given for this mass really describes the way to approach the sacrament: “Be pleased, O Lord, with our humble prayers and offerings, and, since we have no merits to plead our cause, come, we pray, to our rescue with the protection of your mercy.” May we make a good confession this Advent so we can experience within our hearts, our family, and our community, the peace predicted by the prophet Isaiah when the Messiah comes.