Confession, Part Three: Don't Be a Moron.
The Fourth Sunday of Advent; and, the Third Day of the Greater Antiphons.*
Lessons from the tertiary dominica, according to the ordinary form of the Roman Rite:
• Micah 5: 1-4.
• Psalm 80: 2-3, 15-16, 18-19.
• Hebrews 10: 5-10.
• Luke 1: 39-45.
Lessons from the dominica, according to the extraordinary form of the Roman Rite:
• I Corinthians 4: 1-5.
• Psalm 144: 18, 20.
• Luke 3: 1-6.
9:01 AM 12/19/2021 — As you know, we’ve been talking about confession during these Sunday's of Advent. We began a couple of weeks ago with the parable of the Good Samaritan, though we were concerned not so much with the story of the Good Samaritan itself but with the question that prompted Jesus to tell the story. A rabbi had asked our Lord, “What must I do to be saved?” It is, in effect, the quintessential question of Christianity. We are born into this world and given time to live out our lives for one reason only: to make ourselves worthy of heaven. We are here to work out our salvation. That is what life is all about. Confession, of course, is an integral part of that, since, in order to be saved, we have to put ourselves right with God and do whatever is necessary to stay there. Our Lord instituted the Sacrament of Confession for this reason.
Consider for a moment that our Lord did not have to give us confession. That’s an interesting thought for someone who hasn’t been to confession for a number of years and may be resisting going to confession. Christ could have simply given us baptism and left it at that. He had no obligation to institute the Sacrament of Confession, which would mean that once we commit a mortal sin, that’s it—it’s over. Heaven would no longer available to us and there would be nothing we could do about it. So, in giving us this gift of confession, our Lord has in fact made heaven available to anyone who wants to go there, since we now have this opportunity to cleanse ourselves of whatever sins we’ve committed, and make ourselves right with God whenever we want or need to.
And He made the whole thing incredibly easy besides. He instituted the priesthood and gave to these men the ability to forgive sins in His name; and, all we have to do is go to one of these men, say what it is we’ve done, be sincerely sorry for doing it, promise that we’ll do our best not to do it again, and that’s about it. Not only that, but we can do this as often as is necessary. And the Church makes it easier still by charging her priests, on pain of their own immortal souls, not to reveal anything they hear in the Sacrament of Confession, so that no one could have any reason to be afraid to receive it.
Now, last week we spoke about some of the reasons people don’t go to confession: some people are afraid, some people are arrogant and can’t admit that they’re capable of doing anything wrong, some people invent strange theological reasons saying, “I don’t see why I need to tell my sins to a priest; I can just tell God I’m sorry on my own.” And we discussed these and pointed out why they were wrong. But what we didn’t mention was how ridiculous all of these barriers to confession are given the fact that our Lord and His Church have gone out of their way to make the whole thing so easy. Think of someone who decides not to buy a lottery ticket because he’s convinced that he’ll never win; so, the clerk at the store pulls him aside and whispers, “Hey, buddy, here’s a winning ticket. I know because I fixed the machine, and if you take this ticket you’ll win a million dollars, guaranteed. And I’m gonna let you have it for free.” Now think of that person saying, “No thanks. I don’t want to be bothered.” Would we not say that that person is a moron? That’s exactly what it’s like when someone makes up reasons for not going to confession. If the reason for my life is to be saved, and if Jesus has given me a sacrament which guarantees I will be if I only use it regularly, but instead of using it I spend even more energy making up reasons why I don’t or shouldn’t have to, then I must be a moron.
Now, in defense of the morons, there are a lot of psychological reasons why people resist confession, and I alluded to them very briefly last week. Some people are perfectionists who simply can’t bring themselves to admit they’re not perfect. But, there are two kinds of perfectionists: there’s the neurotic, obsessive-compulsive perfectionist who spares no expense to make sure everything he does is perfect, and who beats himself up if it isn’t, and who is also very intolerant of the imperfections of others. If you live with one of these, you know he’s an impossible person to live with. But more common is the—for lack of a better term—arrogant perfectionist, whose perfectionism is fueled by the sin of pride. This is the person who attempts to achieve perfection not by trying to be perfect (because that requires too much effort), but by simply condemning as inferior anything or anyone who might expose his faults. The idea of actually coming to terms with the fact that he’s not perfect, and that he needs forgiveness, and that he doesn’t have to be perfect but all he needs to do is acknowledge his faults and make some effort to do better each time he sins, is impossible for him because he simply can’t take the step of admitting that anyone knows better than he does, even our Lord.
Whenever someone says to me that they don’t feel they need to go to confession, I always point out to them that Saint John Paul II, during the years he was pope, went to confession every morning before his morning Mass. And I don’t mention that because I’m advocating that people should go to confession every day. Far from it. I think once a month or so is quite sufficient for most of us, unless we’re conscious of some mortal sin which needs to be addressed immediately. I mention it only because our late Holy Father obviously felt there was some benefit for him in receiving this sacrament every day. As I reminded you two weeks ago, this sacrament does two things for us: it forgives us of the sins we've committed, but it also imparts a particular grace to avoid sin and resist temptation. And if a saint felt that he needed it every day, what does that say about those of us who haven't been to confession in ten or twenty years? Do we really believe we’re holier than a Pope and a Saint? If so, I would suggest we don’t need a priest; we need a shrink. Now, we might say that the Pope has greater responsibilities and needs to be more careful than we do about the presence of even venial sin in his life; but, then again, if someone is a wife or a husband or a mother or a father, or a priest, are these not tremendous responsibilities in themselves? Do we not need all the grace we can get to help us fulfill these great responsibilities? Do we actually believe that we can do them without God’s help?
Most of us know or have known someone—a friend or relative—who never goes to the doctor no matter how sick he is. Anyone with half an eye can see he’s coming down with something, but when you suggest he go to the urgent care place or to his own doctor for an antibiotic which could make him well in days, he refuses, and stubbornly clings to the notion that he’s a tough guy who never gets sick. And you and I sit back and watch that person get more and more miserable with each passing day, and think to ourselves, “Isn’t that ridiculous?” But, of course, it’s only ridiculous if we’re sure we would behave differently ourselves. Whenever our Lord spoke of sin in the Holy Gospel, He used a medical metaphor: when the Pharisee complained that our Lord was keeping company with unsavory characters, He replied, “It is those who are sick, not those who are in health, that have need of the physician. I have not come to call the just; I have come to call sinners to repentance” (Luke 5: 31-32 Knox). Because that’s what sin is: it is a sickness which robs us of the ability to absorb the grace we need to live a good and decent life. We certainly can’t live a good life without grace; that much is clear to any second grade catechism student.
So, what do we do when our souls are sick and we know we’ve sinned? What do we do, even when our souls are healthy, but we know temptation is out there, and we know we need God’s help to meet the responsibilities of the state in life God has given us? Do we stubbornly insist that we need no help and can do it all ourselves, or do we visit regularly with the physician of our souls who, through the instrumentality of his priest, can heal our souls instantly with the antibiotic of absolution, and inoculate us with his grace, without which we wouldn’t have a fighting chance?
So, as we enter into the last week of Advent and get ready to celebrate our Lord's birth, let's do a quick review. Two weeks ago we discussed how the confessional is not a psychiatrist's couch: there is no need to analyze your behavior for the priest, and try to explain why you did what you did, and what all the circumstances were, and how you feel about it. Confession is not counseling. To try and rehash all the things that brought you there in the first place is not really helpful from a spiritual point of view. You go in, you tell the priest what you did and how many times you did it, get your penance, get absolution and get out. We also talked about how the subject matter of our confessions is not subjective but objective: it's not up to us to confess only those things we feel we want to confess. We have to confess every sin of which we are aware. This means we must examine our consciences using the Ten Commands and the Six Precepts of the Church as our guide; and, to help those of you who aren't quite sure what that means, I made available to you a simple little examination. I then recommended that, in preparation for confession at Christmas time, we take our examination and go through it a little bit at a time, perhaps taking three or four questions each night before we retire, and start to compile a mental list of the things we need to tell our Lord.
Next to the gift of Himself in the Blessed Eucharist, confession is the most precious treasure our Divine Lord has given us. We can't receive Holy Communion worthily without it; we can't get to heaven without it. And, if we do it properly—and by that I mean if we don't try to turn it into a counseling session and snivel to the priest about whatever is bothering us—it only takes a few minutes. When I was rector at the Shrine, there were people who came there to daily Mass who confessed two, sometimes three times a week. And before you scoff at that and say it's extreme, these people are usually only in the confessional for a minute and a half or two minutes. As I mentioned at the beginning of Advent, people who confess often almost always find they have more things they need to confess, not because going to confession frequently makes them sin more, but because they become sensitive to all the little venial sins that we all commit every day. And the dichotomy between people who confess frequently and people who don't is really very striking: someone will come in who hasn't been to confession in twenty years, and he's taken some pencils from work, missed Mass a whole bunch of times, and watched some dirty movies on his computer, and that's his twenty years worth of sins; then, someone will come who went to confession last week, who prejudged someone he works will, took credit for or envied the accomplishments of another, found himself participating in gossip about someone in an unguarded moment, failed to give good example to his children in a matter of person conduct, found himself doubting our Lord's love and grace during a particularly difficult time, passed up an opportunity to perform a work of charity for someone in need, and on and on. You see the difference.
People who confess frequently also come to understand that this sacrament does two things: not only does it lift from our souls the burden of our sins, it also gives us grace to avoid sin in the future; and, even if we're conceited enough to believe we don't need the first, we all need the second. If fact, many people who like to confess weekly will sometimes come and in and say that they've nothing in particular to confess that week, but they want the grace; so, they'll mention a sin from their past, making sure the priest understands that it's been confessed before, just so they can receive absolution and the grace that goes with it. This is what we traditionally call a "confession of devotion."
Nor does it matter how big or how little your sins are. And if you've been hesitating about going to confession because it's been twenty or thirty years, or because you've done things you think will shock the priest, forget it. You could have stolen a pencil from work, or you could have poisoned your mother-in-law and buried her next to the shed out back; it's not going to change what happens in the confessional. And as far as promising our Lord that we'll avoid the occasions of our sins in the future, as it says in the Act of Contrition: that doesn't mean that we must promise our Lord that we will never commit a sin again; no human being with a fallen nature could sincerely promise that. All we need to do to make what we call a “firm purpose of amendment” is promise our Lord that we'll do our best to avoid what has led us into that sin; and, if we should fail, then we just confess it again next time. And don't allow yourself to become discouraged if you find yourself having to confess the same sins over and over again; this happens to everyone, especially if one is dealing with a habitual sin. The process of interior conversion and growth in holiness is often slow, but with every confession our souls are strengthened little by little, even without our noticing it.
The Blessed Apostle John, in his First Epistle, warns us:
Sin is with us; if we deny that, we are cheating ourselves; it means that truth does not dwell in us. No, it is when we confess our sins that he forgives us our sins, ever true to his word, ever dealing right with us, and all our wrong-doing is purged away. If we deny that we have sinned, it means that we are treating him as a liar; it means that his word does not dwell in our hearts (I John 1: 8-10 Knox).
Let's make a resolution today that we will not make our Lord out to be a lair, that we will not cheat ourselves of so great a gift as the forgiveness of our sins; that, as we approach the Nativity of our Lord and the graces available to us during this holy season, we will not shy away from the great gift our Blessed Lord died to give us: the forgiveness of our sins.
* The Greater Antiphons sung at Vespers, known as the "O Antiphons," and also serving as the verse before the Gospel in the ordinary form, are ordered and utilized differently between the two forms of the Roman Rite. The banners at the top of the pages for the Days of the Greater Antiphons have been created to reflect the original ordering of the antiphons as used in the extraordinary form. For reference, the usages of the two forms compare thus:
||O Radix Iesse.
||O Radix Iesse.
||O Clavis David.
||O Clavis David.
||O Rex Gentium.
||O Rex Gentium.
||O Rex Gentium.
||[The Vigil of Christmas.]
Regarding December 24th: in the Roman Rite, the concept of a vigil differs completely between the ordinary and extraordinary forms. In the ordinary form, a vigil is simply a celebration of the feast the evening before, either prior to or following First Vespers (in the United States, after 4:00 PM). On Solemnities on which an obligation has been attached, this may be fulfilled at either the Mass of the vigil the evening before, or on the feast itself.
In the extraordinary form, the word “vigil” designates the entire day before a First Class Feast, and the Mass for the vigil takes place in the morning. If a feast carries an obligation, this must be satisfied on the feast itself; the extraordinary form does not offer the opportunity to satisfy an obligation on the evening before.
In the extraordinary form, December 24th is the Vigil Day of Christmas and has its own proper texts, the Days of the Greater Antiphons having concluded on the 23rd. In the ordinary form, the morning of December 24th is a day of the Greater Antiphons up to Vespers, at which point it becomes the vigil for Christmas.