I was in Richmond Friday to visit with my confessor and celebrate the sacrament of reconciliation. Yes, I still do that every so often. And it helps that it takes me an hour and a half to drive there, with the radio off, a minimum of distractions, alone with just my thoughts, honestly reviewing my journey, uncovering any hidden selfishness and pride that tends to fuel my faulty attitudes and behaviors.
I know the drill. I have been hearing confessions for 26 years, been going to confession since 2nd grade. I know very well what not to say in confession that some people still do, like telling the priest how good I’ve been—to offset any admissions of guilt, or confessing other people’s sins—because there are many more big sinners than myself out there, or pleading ignorance that I may not have known at the time that something was wrong, which means I didn’t really do anything wrong. Good one. It’s exactly what teachers tell their students, that they’ve heard every imaginable excuse when someone didn’t do their homework or didn’t do well in a quiz, most likely because they’ve made some of the same excuses themselves when they were students.
And it helps very much that I have gone to the same priest for reconciliation for a few years. He knows me well, probably better than I know myself. I have nothing to hide, so I gave up trying. I don’t need to provide an elaborate back story every time for things I bring to confession. He knows all my excuses, my weaknesses, my struggles. He can see things that might escape my notice. He can point out the obvious that I do not otherwise grasp maybe because I am too hard on myself, or I am unwilling to surrender my darkness. And he can give some needed insight and advice into how I can be a better Christian and a better priest. And in all this, his compassion and kindness encourages me to keep returning, because he convinces me that God’s love for me is unchanging no matter my faults, as long as I make a sincere effort to do better. Success is not guaranteed. But God is mindful of my efforts, and knows I have not given up yet.
So lately, I have noticed my confessor doesn’t really say a whole lot anymore, not a lot of new insight, not a lot of practical advice. Maybe it’s because he’s already told me everything he’s ever wanted to tell me. Maybe he’s just waiting ever so patiently for the lightbulb in my head to come on. It’s not the same when someone else flips the switch. It makes a more memorable impact when you arrive at the great epiphany on your own. Maybe he’s been where I am now. Maybe his confessor did something similar, not saying much because it was much better when he came up with the helpful insight and advice himself.
And as I think of it, I probably already know what I need to do anyway. If I am honest, it should be no great mystery to me what my faults are, as well as what needs to change. When I was resistant to God’s grace, when I was in denial, when I was reluctant to acknowledge my darkness, I would surely have needed someone else to hold me to account, to bring my faults to my attention, to shine a light upon my darkness. I still need help with that on occasion. But please don’t volunteer. It’s not a job for amateurs.
“What should we do?,” the crowds asked John the Baptist at the Jordan. Last week we heard that John was traveling the whole region proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. That likely meant he showed his listeners, people from all walks of life, that gaping rift between themselves and God caused by their sins, their idolatry, their selfishness, their lack of charity and compassion, their unwillingness to forgive their neighbor, their greed and pride and lust. He helped them see that God desired to be reconciled with his people, that they once again dedicate themselves to the covenant he had made with their ancestors, that they live faithfully by the Law he gave them, and he in turn would shelter, protect, and guide them as his people.
John was full of insight and practical advice for everyone who sought his help. “Whoever has two cloaks should share with the person who has none. And whoever has food should do likewise.” To a group of tax collectors he advised, “Stop collecting more than what is prescribed.” And to some soldiers, “Do not practice extortion, do not falsely accuse anyone, and be satisfied with your wages.” He really had nothing new to say to anyone. Somewhere along the way, they had probably heard someone tell them the same thing. Perhaps they had forgotten. Perhaps they had to be reminded. But I bet they already knew the answer to the question they asked him, “What should we do?”
As our Advent journey continues, we keep hearing John the Baptist’s call for reform and renewal. “Keep watch!,” he tells us. “Prepare!” And Jesus would proclaim a similar message, “Repent!” “Be reconciled!” “Love one another as I have loved you.” “Forgive as your Father in heaven forgives.” “Be merciful as your Father in heaven is merciful.” And still we want an answer to the question, “What should we do?,” a direct answer that speaks to our unique circumstances as parents and children, spouses and siblings, employers and laborers, educators and students, public officials and citizens.
But the answer is right before us, right under our noses, if we truly desire one. And it requires that we first use our eyes to see, our ears to hear, our hearts to know and understand. We first need to humbly confess our faults and struggles, whether we arrive at that realization on our own or others need to point them out to us, that we admit the darkness within us. It is not necessary that we have everything under control, or that we are fully committed to a radical Christian discipleship, or that we have decided once and for all to embrace God’s call to perfection. No, it is not necessary. If we wait till conditions are perfect, then why would we need God’s help? If we wait till finally we have a blameless clergy, a spotless and sinless church, a community of irreproachable fellow-Christians, why would we need God’s healing and forgiveness? Instead it is while we are weak and struggling, that we see our need for reconciliation and wholeness. “Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do.”
So, what is the answer we seek? “What should we do?” A willingness to admit our faults helps us embrace change, by doing the opposite good of the evil we have been doing. Have you been selfish? Be intentionally generous. Have you been resentful? Be intentionally loving. Have you been nursing a grudge? Be intentionally gracious and forgiving. Have you been over-indulgent? Be intentionally temperate and sober. Those who are without fault, who admit no struggle, will not find an answer. If our faults are ever before us, then the path to change will be right there as well, under our noses.
So if you’re perfect already, come let us know. And you don’t need to come to church anymore. We should come to your house instead … and worship you.
Rolo B Castillo © 2018
Luke 3: 10
Luke 3: 11-14
Matthew 9: 12