Psalm 72:1-2, 7-8, 12-13, 17
As we all know, Advent is a time for us to continue to prepare ourselves for the coming of the Lord. We are preparing in all kinds of ways right now for Christmas with bonfires, decorating homes, shopping, and planning for parties with families, friends, and co-workers. And while all of those are good things, St. John the Baptist powerfully calls to mind that above all of those things we must be preparing our hearts by repenting from our sins. “Repent! The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!” cries the Baptist to each one of us, a challenge to turn from our sins and toward Christ.
With his call to repent St. John also provides the beautiful symbolic ritual of washing with water, a precursor to our sacrament of baptism. Water is such a rich image because we use it for so many things but they all come down to two basic features: cleansing and bringing life. We wash our bodies with it, we wash our cars, our clothes, and a whole host of other things. And the symbolism is that the dirt is washed away and there is cleanness once more. This image holds especially well in a river, where the water is constantly flowing. To go and be immersed in the river meant that the old self and the sins of the past, were symbolically washed away when you come out of the water. They’re gone. You come out different than before. This was actually the basic format of baptism in the early Church too. There was a special building called the baptistery where you would receive baptism because you would come in with your old clothing on, then strip naked, be immersed in the water of baptism and walk out the other side to receive a white garment symbolizing your purity and the reality of putting on Christ. The old clothes were left there, you didn’t go back to retrieve them. And in the same way, your old life of sin was left behind, not to be sought after again. The old self died and a new one came to life in Christ.
But before any of that could happen we know that there was another necessary step – acknowledging one’s sins. The baptism St. John performed came only after people acknowledged their sins. If we don’t acknowledge our sins we can’t receive God’s mercy. And in addition to acknowledging our sins, we must also show that we are truly sorrow for them. When the Pharisees and Sadducees come to join all the cool kids for baptism, St. John challenges them “show me fruits of repentance!” It’s not enough to say “I’m sorry”. We have to live it and change our ways. Yesterday was the feast of St. Ambrose, bishop and doctor of the Church, and during his life there was a specific incident with the emperor Theodosius that should give us pause in reflection. Theodosius had committed a serious sin that had separated him from the community and yet he didn’t really repent of it. He came to the Church to attend Mass and as he walked forward St. Ambrose closed the doors of the church and told Theodosius he wasn’t permitted to enter the church. Imagine the shock on his face when he heard those words from St. Ambrose’s mouth! Ambrose continued and spoke of the sin on his heart that kept him from entering the House of God. Theodosius recalled the story of King David who sinned grievously and then repented and was welcomed into the Temple. St. Ambrose agreed and said “You have sinned like David. Now show me repentance like David.” At this Theodosius’ heart was converted. He wept tears of repentance, did public penance before the whole community and even made a public confession of his sins. He showed that the repentance was genuine by the fruit of a changed life. God desires the same in us and this happens in the Sacrament of Confession.
It is in Confession that we are able to truly acknowledge our sins before the Lord, have them washed away not by water but by the Precious Blood of Jesus, and then do our penance as the fruit of our repentance, the proof that we desire to change and are willing to work to make it happen. Confession is the place where we encounter God’s mercy most clearly and most powerfully, and it is there that the Lord invites us especially in this season of Advent. Speaking from my past experience, there have been times where I was reluctant to go to confession. Sometimes it was because I was ashamed of my sins and I didn’t want to say it to anyone, sometimes it was because I knew the priest and was worried he would look at me later and think of my list of sins, sometimes it was because I thought I didn’t need to since I hadn’t done anything ‘really bad’, and sometimes it was even because I didn’t know if God would really forgive me. I’ve thought all of them and been held away from God’s grace because of them. But that’s not God’s desire, that is what Satan wants for us. He wants us to be afraid to go to confession or to think we don’t need to because then he keeps us away from the power of God’s grace and life. But the truth is that not only should we go to confession, we must! The Church tells us that we have to go to confession at least once each year. But I’ll be honest with you, that’s really not enough for someone who is serious about the spiritual life. If I cleaned my room out only once a year, it would be horrible when that happened. It would be beyond dirty, there would be junk everywhere, and it would take me ten times as long to clean than if I had done little bits throughout the year. And the same goes with our souls. Many saints of the Church encourage going to confession at least once a month. But don’t make it some gloomy experience. Bring the whole family. Mark it one the calendar, something like ‘the third Sunday of every month we’re all going to confession’ and keep that a priority. Come to confession and Mass and then go have a family lunch afterward. Get ice cream to celebrate the gift of God’s mercy! If we get into the habit then we come to enjoy the sacrament because rather than something to be feared or dreaded, it become a place of great peace in the deepening encounter with God and His love.
Also, I recognize that there may be some folks here tonight who haven’t been to confession in many years, who have some serious sins on your heart or are worried that God won’t keep His end of the bargain. If that is you, don’t let that stop you from coming to confession. There is NOTHING God cannot do in our lives if we give Him the opportunity. Look again at our first reading from the prophet Isaiah. He prophesies that a shoot will come from the stump of Jesse. The word stump is intentional because the tree has been cut down! It’s dead! Jesse lived a thousand years before Christ. He had a promise that a king from his line would always reign on the throne over Israel. And what happened? A couple of hundred years passed and they kingdom was divided. They began to fight against one another and were then conquered by foreign nations. They were exiled, shipped off to become slaves of other nations. The returned here and there but there wasn’t a king like before. Everything was different. The promise seemed to have gone unfulfilled for centuries; the stump was dead. And yet from that dead stump arose a new king – Jesus Christ, God made flesh. From something lifeless He brought a savior. And he desires to bring each of us to know that same transformation and experience of growth in our hearts. Do not be afraid of confession. If anything has held you back, cast it aside and come. Come, encounter the Lord’s mercy. Come, prepare the way of the Lord to come into your heart. Come, O Come, Emmanuel!