I recall a conversation with a friend a while back, in which she told me about one of her children having faced disciplinary action for an incident at school. She relayed how the situation had played out at home in her family and the subsequent surprising blessings that had emerged. Even though she and her husband were disappointed in their child’s poor decision, they managed to deal mercifully with the young person. Where they had expected of themselves that they would heap punishment, they had instead received an extraordinary grace enabling them to handle the situation calmly. What came out of the unfortunate incident was a renewal of trust between parents and child, as well as the desire on the part of the child to begin again, and leave the guilt behind. My friend shared with me the letter sent by the school explaining its version of the incident. The letter delineated the exact rule that had been violated, as well as the corresponding disciplinary action that would be taken. We were both struck by the starkness of the letter. The facts that it stated could not be disputed; yet, how different was the jolting legalese of the letter from the experience of my friend with her child! The letter left no room for reparation or restoration; it simply stated the facts. Thinking about this letter and its contrast with my friend’s interaction with her child led me to think about the sacrament of reconciliation. The second precept of the Church states, You shall confess your sins at least once a year ; here are no vague words. Revealed to me, via my friend’s experience, was a perfect example of the “letter of the law of the Church” versus the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ; I began to see an image of God’s desire to see us through a lens of Mercy rather than one of judgement. He invites us into the confessional, the “field” of His Mercy.
Why confess our sins? Is it to go to the Lord with a laundry list of all the things we’ve done wrong, as He shakes his head in disgust? Is it to be ridiculed and scolded by a priest? Is it to be “put in our place” so that we feel ashamed and guilty? It is called a “sacrament of healing”; can we experience tender, life-changing healing in a rigid courtroom?
Our encounter with Christ, through the priest, is not for Him to rebuke us for wrongdoing. Yes, there are the Ten Commandments and the Precepts of the Church; where we see ourselves having fallen short with regard to these becomes the “stuff” of our confession. But Christ does not stand aloof from us in anger and derision saying, “Look what you’ve done wrong!” but rather He bends down to us in love, not to scold us, but rather to free us. When we turn our hearts away from God and neighbor, we trade our dignity as children of God for a lie, a distortion of who we are in our Father’s eyes, a reduction of our true selves. Christ wants to unbind the chains we have tightened around ourselves and to restore us to true freedom. He invites us to place our wounds within His, the source of healing, where they are absorbed, becoming conduits of Grace for ourselves and for others.
After we bring our sins to the sacrament of reconciliation, after we confess them, He forgets them. Wait...can God, who is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent, forget? Yet, He chooses to forget...the sins are gone. If we dwell on something already confessed, we fall prey to the enemy of our souls, who wants to remind us of all of our failings, wants to convince us that we haven’t “told all”, that we haven’t “confessed properly”. He wants us to believe that we really do not have a Savior, that we are left on our own, with no possibility of forgiveness.
Confession is the encounter with Mercy. Mercy Himself sits there, in the person of the priest. Our speaking aloud our sins is our emptying them, as though into a bottomless ocean. Once we let them go, they are gone, drowned, swallowed up, never to be recovered. And then Christ, through the voice of the priest, pours the words of absolution into our ears, the opening to our hearts: “I absolve you from your sins, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” That promise replaces the sin. It is a very uneven exchange-we pour out sin, and He pours in Mercy. Then we leave, vessels of Mercy for the world. It is a visceral encounter with the Living God, which we experience through our senses. When we leave the confessional, we can truly say, “I have spoken to Christ and I have heard Him speak to me!”
Jesus said to Saint Faustina, “My daughter,...Your misery does not hinder My mercy...write that the greater the misery of a soul, the greater its right to My mercy; [urge] all souls to trust in the unfathomable abyss of My mercy, because I want to save them all. On the cross, the fountain of My mercy was opened wide by the lance for all souls — no one have I excluded!”1
The words ordering us to confess our sins once a year inform us of an obligation, but they don’t breathe the Mercy of Christ. Instead of hearing a command, may the ears of our hearts hear an invitation to forgiveness and healing.