Monday, April 7, 2014

Perturbances of Penance

For Catholics, Lent is the penitential season of the liturgical year.  It is an annual invitation to re-center our lives on Christ, to re-orient our minds and hearts to the will of the Father, and to let the Holy Spirit re-direct our daily duties toward the Kingdom of Heaven.

A supernatural centerpiece of Lent is the call to the Sacrament of Penance or Reconciliation.  Jesus sends his Church out to forgive sins, even though he certainly knows that God hears every one of our prayers--including our daily acts of contrition.  "Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them..." (Jn 20:23); once again, the radical newness of the Gospel cannot be questioned.  Given that the Scribes and Pharisees were already upset with Jesus for forgiving sins (can't only God do this?!), imagine how outraged they must have been to see the Apostles to carrying on this work after Jesus' Resurrection!

Yet, as we careen deeper into the 21st Century, perhaps a part of us is also outraged by the Sacrament of Penance.  Indeed, have you noticed how difficult it is to get to Confession?  For some people, years have passed, and it seems less and less likely that they'll rediscover this gift (though it is always already being offered by the Lord).  For others, the annual Lenten commitment seems like a torturous obligation.  And even if we make a commitment to receive this Sacrament, countless obstacles seem to emerge--at least for me, a small voice seems to whisper, "Just wait until next week" or "You're not really going to confess that, are you?"

One part of us longs for the everlasting mercy of God, while another part is glad to rebuff the offer.  One part of us, deep down, wants to "be perfect, as our heavenly Father is perfect" (Mt 5: 48).  Another part wants to lash out and teach God a lesson, insisting that "No one's perfect!"  One part of us wants to love and be loved, fully, even while another part wants to rebuke the very possibility of true love.

As he makes his way toward his time of fulfillment in Jerusalem, Jesus speaks words unparalleled in the history of the human race:  "I am the resurrection and the life; whoever belies in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.  Do you believe this?" (Jn 11:25-26).  Part of us cries out with Peter, even after years of false starts, denials and betrayals, "Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you" (Jn 21:17).  Another part of us, tragically, would rather keep lying in the tombs of our own making.

This perturbs Jesus.  The Lover wonders why the Beloved would reject him.

Twice during the account of the raising of Lazarus, Jesus became perturbed.  The footnote in the New American Bible comments that "became perturbed" is a "startling phrase in Greek, literally, 'He snorted in the spirit'."  It is as if our Lord is overwhelmed by the ways we have enslaved ourselves with destructive habits, encased ourselves in layers of rationalized self-seeking.  Hurts harbored but not healed, sufferings soothed though merely masked, evils justified as inevitable, sins thought to be unforgiveable and thus suffered ceaselessly:  Part of us has been dead even longer than Lazarus.  Maybe the stench of death makes Jesus snort for fresh air.

Yet Jesus continues to cry out our name in a loud voice, commanding: "Come out!" (Jn 11:43).  Already claimed by Christ in Baptism, our truest self longs to rise up, "tied head and foot with burial bands."  And Jesus boldly commissions the Church to finish off his saving work: "Untie him and let him go."

If we choose to accept Christ's gift of mercy and redemption in the Sacrament of Penance, won't we be much more likely to rise up from our tombs when he calls us each by name after our earthly deaths?  If our truest self can find the courage to come out, we can claim the "fresh start" for which we long.  The Lord will "untie" us in and through the ministry of his Church, and the following words will bring us a joy which the world cannot give:
God the Father of mercies,
through the death and resurrection of his Son
has reconciled the world to himself
and sent the Holy Spirit among us
for the forgiveness of sins;
through the ministry of the Church
may God give you pardon and peace,
and I absolve you from your sins
in the name of the Father, and of the Son,
and of the Holy Spirit.
Let's make the most of this most intimate Lenten invitation, so the words of the Gospel can take on new meaning:  "And Jesus wept."  This time, however, unperturbed and much consoled.