Psalm 145:1-2, 8-11, 13-14
2 Thessalonians 1:11-2:2
Today we hear the story of Zacchaeus, the wee little man, a wee little was he. He climbed up in a sycamore for the Lord he wanted to see. I don’t know if y’all had that children’s song in the Catholic Church but as a Methodist it’s how I learned about this passage, which thankfully is much deeper than just a simple children’s song. What strikes me about this passage is that the Lord reaches out to Zacchaeus first. Zacchaeus just climbs the tree because he wants to see this Jesus passing by, not like others who are compelled to touch Him or His cloak. And Jesus it is who calls out first and says He wants to go to Zacchaeus’ house. In that the Lord reveals His love for Zacchaeus. It is only then that Zacchaeus promises to give half of his belongings to the poor and to pay back fourfold what he had attained wrongly. After experiencing God’s love and even forgiveness, we see him giving something to make up for what he had done in the past.
When we go to Confession, we receive the forgiveness of our sins but the reality is that while our sins are forgiven there is still due to us some punishment due to us because of our sins. The wages of sin, St. Paul tells us, is death, and so every sin brings upon us some justly deserved punishment. But it’s not really a punishment like we usually think of it. Sin is often thought in our minds to be just the breaking of a rule, but we miss the greater part of the reality of sin if we limit it to rule-breaking. It is actually a wound in the relationship we have with our self, our neighbors, and, most importantly, our God. The punishment is found in the fact that it takes something on our part to build that relationship back up; we must make up for what we have hurt, just like Zacchaeus.
While there are many ways that God’s grace can come to us to help alleviate some of these punishments, there are some very specific ones that the Church holds out to us in what is traditionally known as indulgences. The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us that an indulgence is “a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sin whose guilt has already been forgiven.” Again, it’s doing something to alleviate the punishments due after we’ve already been forgiven.
Indulgences have often gotten a bad reputation because there were times in centuries past where if you bought a brick for the parish church you got an indulgence, if you bought a whole bunch of bricks you got a whole bunch of indulgences and there were some who thought they could do whatever they wanted in this life and just build a church and more or less buy salvation. That’s not the case. Also, in the earlier part of the century we had a plethora of holy cards with a little note on the back of ‘100 days indulgence’, ‘300 days indulgence’, 500 days indulgence’ – you always wanted the 500 days indulgence ones! – and would often count the days we had gained up. Things have been simplified since then and days are not attached, but the underlying truth is that we still should strive to gain these graces because we are all sinners and in need of the freedom from punishments deserved.
While many of you may not be familiar with the term indulgence or with the practice of trying to gain them, they are indeed a very important part of the life of the Church and you’re likely doing some things already that are indulgenced without realizing it. Things such as serving the poor, praying the rosary, spending time in Eucharistic Adoration, praying approved prayers to the saints, teaching catechism and other such things. All of these are opportunities for us to mend that relationship with God. With these particular prayers and actions, and the many others that are approved by the Church, we have to recognize that it’s not just doing the action that wins us freedom from punishment like it’s some sort of magic trick. Rather, the Church says that is we have the right disposition of heart and we intentionally do these things we will be able to receive the grace of remission of punishment. The main things are to be aware of the opportunity to gain the graces and to have the right dispositions to do so.
Most of the things mentioned above are ‘partial indulgences’ which means that the punishment is only partially removed. These types of indulgences are available as often as we do them and can be gained many times throughout the day. There is also a plenary indulgence – or a complete remission of the punishment – that can be gained once a day each day. Those require specific actions from us including a reciting the Creed, praying for the Holy Father’s intentions (an Our Father and Hail Mary), going to Communion that day, making a good confession within 20 days before or after, and being free from all attachment to sin in our hearts. Those conditions plus other specific things gain a great many graces for us, but also for others.
Just as we can pray for one another here on Earth, we can also pray for those who have preceded us in death and the saints can pray for us too. I mention this because November 1-8 are special days of indulgences in the Church. We can gain a plenary indulgence for ourselves on November 1 and on November 2-8 if we visit a cemetery and pray for the faithful departed, as well as the other prayers above, we can gain a plenary indulgence for them! It’s a great gift of charity to take the time to do such an action because it could well be the thing that permits that soul to enter into eternal glory with God in Heaven. And you better believe that if you’ve helped them in any way get to Heaven they will be eternally grateful (literally) and will pray for us as we journey in this life and through any purgatory time we might have ourselves. Not that it should be done for selfish reasons, but that’s not a bad bonus there!
To conclude, I just encourage all of you to learn about indulgences, continue to open yourselves to God’s forgiveness in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and seek out these blessed opportunities to receive indulgences for ourselves and others, that we all might rejoice together in the goodness of our God and the glory of what is to come.