Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Who can forgive sins, but God?

Who can forgive sins but God? The gospel tells us that - as a truth of the faith – only God can forgive sins. And so the next obvious question is: If only God can forgive sins then why am I obliged to present myself to a priest, who is obviously not God, in the confessional? Why can’t I approach God directly and receive his forgiveness for the wrongs I have done? Why, many object, reveal to a mere man what might be my most intimate circumstances and most secret faults? Why do I need the priest as a go-between in order to receive God’s forgiveness?

The Gospel story of the paralytic who is lowered through the roof to Jesus gives us a clue. The paralytic is unable to get to Jesus. He needs the help of his friends. And even then there are so many obstacles that meeting Jesus and being healed seems impossible. But these friends are undaunted, when others would just give up – these friends go to extreme lengths to ensure this paralytic has his meeting with Christ. They eventually bring him right to the feet of Jesus and he is thereby healed. These friends are a symbol of the Church and of our priests, who bring us into direct contact with Jesus. Why go to the priest for confession? Because through his priesthood we can be sure that we are placed in the presence of Christ and that from that place we will go forth reborn, free and strong.

Jesus makes it clear that the paralysis of the man in the Gospel was more spiritual than physical. And that spiritual paralysis was the healing he really needed. Jesus grants both types of healing to him, but puts the emphasis on the restrictive and destructive power of sin which must be removed and can only be removed by God. Only God can forgive sins.

The words of absolution which we hear each time we go to confession are spoken by the Priest. He does not say: "I forgive you your sins" nor "Christ forgives you your sins"; but "I absolve you," "I absolve you from your sins, in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit." The word ‘absolve’ means to unbind, or to set free. And in those words the mercy of God, the forgiveness of Christ, is applied to the soul. Priests are the Lord’s ministers of mercy. In the confessional they act, not merely on Christ’s behalf, but as Christ himself.

Why do we need to go to the priest for confession? If this great sacrament is what our faith tells us it is – then why would we go anywhere else, why would we even hesitate? But many do hesitate and even reject that great sacrament. The early Fathers of the Church, great saints and bishops of the early Church, called the sacrament of penance the second plank of salvation after the shipwreck which is the loss of the state of grace. The first plank is baptism, and by it we are hauled aboard the ship which is the Church. Serious sins is like falling overboard back into the dangerous sea and unless the Church throw overboard that second plank – confessions – then we risk being drowned in that sea of iniquity. What drowning man would refuse to reach out and grasp the only thing that can keep him afloat. And yet many do just that. Calling out from the stormy waves they have fallen into through sin – “Save me Lord, Save me” – and there beside them is that great ship called the Church offering salvation, but the offer goes unheeded.

Pope John Paul II spoke on the hesitation which many experience over this sacrament:
"It is true, he said, the man who absolves is a brother who must also confess in his turn, since, despite his obligation to grow in personal holiness, he remains subject to the limitations of human frailty. The man who absolves, however, does not offer the forgiveness of sins in the name of his own holiness… When he raises his hand in blessing and pronounces the words of absolution, he acts ‘in persona Christi’ – in the person of Christ – not simply as Christ’s representative, but also and above all as a human instrument in which the Lord Jesus is present and acts."

If we really believed in the healing power of the sacrament of confession, then such a crowd would gather round the doors of the confessional that it would be almost impossible to get in to have our meeting with Christ. It takes faith to believe in this sacrament, but it is precisely faith, the faith of those friends of the paralytic, which stirs Jesus to grant that man a complete healing of Body and Soul. After perhaps years of paralysis, one encounter with Christ, changed that man’s whole life and set him back on the road to eternal life. Let us pray that we might all appreciate both the reality and the necessity of receiving the Lord’s pardon in the great sacrament of reconciliation.
I leave you with another quotation from John Paul II:
The confession boxes of the world in which people bring their sins to light do not proclaim the severity of God, but above all they speak of his merciful goodness. And those who approach the confessional, sometimes after many years and with the weight of serious sins, find the longed-for relief when they go from there; they find the joy and serenity of conscience, which they can find nowhere else but in confession.”
Lent is fast approaching. This year lets put repentance and confession of our sins at the top of our list of things to focus on.
In the Hearts of Jesus and Mary,
Fr. B

No comments:

Post a Comment