Confession: The Repentant Life

Seven Sacraments Altarpiece, Rogier van der Weyden

Seven Sacraments Altarpiece, Rogier van der Weyden

This week we consider the sacrament of Confession as a model for the Christian life.

As we walk through the sacrament, we will find several models for the Christian life.

First comes our examination of conscience. The point of examining our conscience is not to figure out how much God hates us, but to find ways in which we have failed to love God and our neighbor. The distinction between mortal and venial sin matters – but let us not make it too important. Sin is any failure to love.

This is about ambition. The point is not to wallow in our sin, the point is to get better. To say frankly to ourselves, “that’s not how I should have treated that person,” so that we can not do it in the future.

Even more, it is about God’s mercy. We can be fearless about our sin because we know that Jesus is stronger. Confession is about asking to be set free: absolution literally means “unbinding.” If we like our sin, God will let us keep it. If we bring our sin to Jesus – like all the sick people, who begged for his touch – he will unbind us.

The Christian life is marked by a frank, fearless acknowledgement of sin.

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Second, in the sacrament we must confess our sin. We make our acknowledgement of sin concrete. Repentance is impossible – even on a purely psychological level – if we just walk around vaguely looking at the sky and thinking we’re bad people. That achieves nothing.

But Confession is about speaking our particular sins. This particularity takes us to a whole different idea of what “sin” even means. If we keep things general, sin seems to mean that God just sort of vaguely doesn’t like us, in general. He doesn’t like us. But by particularizing sin, we realize that it is particular acts that are a problem.

In a sense, by concretely naming our sin, we put it outside of ourselves. It is not I who am sin, it is that: that action, that choice I made. I can separate myself from that choice. And the goal is to conquer that sin, not to conquer me.

The Christian life gets concrete and particular about what sin means.

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Third comes contrition. This is tied to a “firm purpose of amendment”: that is, a desire not to do it again. But again, this shows how freeing Confession is. We are not saying, “this is just the way I am, and it’s terrible.” We are saying, “it doesn’t have to be this way. My heart can love better than that.”

But in fact, contrition goes deeper, more personal, than just a “firm purpose.” (What cold words!) Contrition means sadness. There is supposed to be an emotional component to this. Because emotion expresses love. I’m not just obeying rules. I love God, and I love these people, and it makes me sad that I don’t do a better job of loving them.

Now, our contrition doesn’t have to be “perfect.” We are not as sad as we ought to be. But we should be sad. In fact – no room to spell this out in all its grandeur here – this is the real goal of Confession: to nurture a real sadness about our failure to love, so that we can love better. Did you know that it is sacrilege for a priest to absolve you if you don’t express some kind of (imperect!) sadness about your sin?

The Christian life sheds tears over sin. Not anger, tears.

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Fourth, we do penance. We make reparation. What does that mean? Perhaps the key is to look to our hearts, not to the world. Sin is a problem of the heart, not a matter of consequences.

So reparation is not about fixing everything that’s ever gone wrong. It is about fixing my heart. It is about setting off in a new direction, taking a step away from sin and toward true love.

The Christian life is about change, repair, improvement. In this sense (and only in this sense!) the Christian life is penitential.

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Finally, we cast our sins on Jesus. That’s the purpose of the priest: he’s just some schmo; he is a dispenser of grace only because he is sent forth as such by Jesus.

We accept our “penance” from the priest precisely to mark that the way forward is not on our own – how fearsome that would be! – but in union with Jesus. We set off beside him. He helps us shoulder the cross of repentance.

The Christian never thinks of sin apart from the merciful and saving love of Jesus, and always seeks means to be closer to that merciful love.

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How do you express repentance in your life?

eric.m.johnston

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