Lifted up by God’s merciful hand: A homily for the Third Sunday of Lent

confession - Jesus.jpgMsgr is still away. At first I liked running the place. But then I got tired. We’ll pray him back to us this week.  Today’s Collect at Mass offers us a beautiful image that fits with the readings and the topic +Tobin has asked all priests to preach about today, which is confession. In the Collect, we prayed that we who are bowed down by our conscience will be lifted up by God’s mercy. What a beautiful image. We bow down and God lifts us up.

It is a humbling thing to bow down. It is not always easy to acknowledge that we need help, that we are not enough for ourselves, that we need God.  Pope Francis, when he was in Mexico, told a stadium full of high schoolers: When God extends his hand to you to help you up, “don’t hide your hand from him.” Don’t leave God hanging when he gives you his hand. Don’t remain fallen. Give him your hand and let him help you up. That takes some bowing down!

I want to share a little about confession, because I was told to, but also because I believe that the Sacrament of Penance is one of the greatest gifts God uses to help us up. It is one of the most powerful ways he extends his hand of mercy to us.  I just want to briefly go through the ritual of confession. It is an ancient ritual, one that has taken many forms over the years but which has been with us since the start.  It consists of several parts.

The first part is called “The Reception of the Penitent.” This is where I say hello, Good morning, Good evening, How are you.  The rubric says that the priest is to greet the person with kindness. To borrow a thought of Pope Francis, this is a way of reminding the penitent that confession is not a torture chamber. It is quite the opposite.  A place of great love.

After the greeting, the ritual calls for a reading or referral to sacred scripture. This need not take place at this moment in the confession; usually I read something from the bible after the person has confessed his sins. But the point is: Scripture is so important that it is a part of every sacrament, confession included. It is also a reminder that this is not therapy or counseling. It is not a psychiatric or psychological session. It is a place where God wants to direct and speak to a soul. What better way than Scripture?

Then follows the confession of sins. I always say, I only need to hear the sins. I don’t need the story behind each sin. And I don’t need your spouse’s sins. Just your sins and a ballpark number of times. “I gossiped every day in the last two years.” OK–gives me a clue. This can be hard, but you need to say them all for the thing to be valid. Just say it and get it over with. I’ve been a priest 8 months and I’ve heard most everything by now, and I won’t remember, and even if I did I promise I wouldn’t treat you any differently.  Our scriptures today give us two images of sin. First, we have slavery in Egypt. That is a type of sin. Many are enslaved by the internet or laziness or food or lust. God wants to set you free and he’ll do it in this sacrament. The other image is in the Gospel. Jesus talks about the tree that is fruitless. It is the nature of a tree to make fruit. It’s the nature of a human–especially a Christian and especially a Catholic–to make fruit, too. Fruit of love and virtue and all the rest. When we are not true to our nature we sin. And we go to confession to confess our fruitlessness and to ask God to help make us fruitful in the future.

Then follows the giving of the penance. I almost always give the same thing: Three Hail Marys. It is one of the most traditional penances and it is that for a reason. No one can help us better than Mary.

After that is the act of contrition. It is the most important part says the Church. I tell you there is nothing more beautiful than a truly contrite person. A person who really wants to be right ith God, a person who wants to not just do better but to be better.  A person who prays authentically, I messed up and Jesus I need you to help me. I want to be a better husband, a better mother, a better friend, a better man. I’m here because I need you God to help me, to give me a fresh start, and on my part I’ll do all I can to get better.

Then come the words of absolution. A woman who came into the Church when she was 50 a few years ago said, “It’s like I had been waiting my whole life to hear those words.” They are words of mercy, words of forgiveness, words of love. They are the most beautiful words.

The last part of the ritual is the acclamation of praise. It looks like this. I say “Go in peace” and the penitent says, “Thank you” or “Thanks be to God.”  That’s good enough. This is a time to show God how thankful we are.

One reason Pope Francis called this Year of Mercy and one reason that +Tobin says we are supposed to talk about confession today is because of how central it is to our faith. So come!  We’ve got confessions after every daily Mass in the chapel. We also have First Fridays this Friday, with Mass and stations and adoration and confessions–all starting at 5:45. I’d love to be in the box till midnight. We also have a penance service on March 21 at 7pm.

We need confession because we need mercy, because we need to take hold of God’s merciful hand that is outstretched to us. See you in the box.