Sunday, June 12, 2016

Why Confess My Sins to a Priest?

Readings for Sunday, June 12 / 11th Sunday in Ordinary Time:
2 Samuel 12:7-10, 13
Psalm 32
Galatians 2:16, 19-21
Luke 7:36-8:3

This week I was listening to a podcast on health and the podcaster was discussing scientific studies that showed that subjecting oneself to extreme heat and cold had notable health benefits. He noted how much of western culture likes to keep our temperature at a consistent level at home, in the car, at work, in stores and restaurants and more. It would seem that would be healthy but research indicated that having stresses on the body - heat and cold, specifically - made the body more versatile and adaptable, and thus healthier. He then posited such things as cold baths and going to the sauna (in Louisiana we call that simply going outside in the summer). But it intrigued me that the discomfort actually brought about health. 

In the letter to the Galatians, St. Paul addressed something that was causing some discomfort in the early Church. Some of the Jewish converts to Christianity continued to hold that one must follow the Jewish works of the law in addition to the mandates of Christ, causing much confusion to the Gentile (non-Jewish) converts who thought it unnecessary to practice the Jewish laws since Christ came to give a 'new law' in the Spirit. St. Paul acknowledges the conflict and affirms that it was not necessary to follow the Jewish works of the law, such as the ritual washings and such, because such things do not bring about justification or salvation. Those who remained attached to the works of the law were placing their trust in the actions they were doing and St. Paul unambiguously points out that if those actions were enough, then Christ died in vain. If it were possible to get to heaven simply by the works of the Jewish law, it is foolishness to have Christ come among us to die because there was an easier way. But that was not the case. Justification is not through works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, and the conflict helped to clarify that fundamental teaching of the Church.

A question that I've often heard posed is another that arises from an experience of discomfort: Why do I have to confess my sins to a priest? It's a question that is raised frequently and with much firmness in the conviction that 'I can go straight to Jesus without needing a priest.' The scriptures help us to make a bit of sense on the question. First, it's to recall that Jesus' first act after the Resurrection was to appear to the Twelve and to breath the Holy Spirit upon them, telling them "Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven, who sins you retain are retained." The fact that it was the first thing He did is significant. Acts of the Apostles shows us that the disciples took the Lord at His word and went forth to preach the Gospel, forgive sins, and to health. One point not often given much reflection is that our sins affect not only 'me and Jesus' but also 'me and everyone else'. The impact of personal sin cannot be underestimated in our dealing with others, especially given the fact that the majority of our sins are in direct connection with another person or group of people. At Holy Mass, the priest acts on behalf of God for the people, nourishing them with the Eucharist, and also on behalf of the people to God, to whom we offer the sacrifice of Jesus and our sacrifice of praise. He acts in both ways, as well, during confession, imparting forgiveness on behalf of both God and the community. We can call to mind also the epistle of St. James (5:16) which calls for the confession of sins to one another. These can be helpful in giving strength to the argument, but only one argument was really enough to personally convince me when I was younger: Jesus set it up that way.

When it comes to confessing our sins to a priest, many conveniently forget just how physical was the ministry of Jesus and the worship of our Jewish ancestors before Him. It was eminently physical because we aren't angels. We're not purely spiritual beings. We are human, which means we are composed of both spirit and body. Both are important and the Lord's connection to us honors that point. In the first reading from 2nd Samuel we hear how it was a prophet of God who proclaimed the mercy of God. Prophets weren't just good preachers, they were men chosen by God and anointed with holy oil as a sign of consecration to be the voice of God. When they spoke they began "Thus says the Lord..." because they spoke on behalf of God to the people because the Lord knew the needed to hear it. The priests of the Jewish faith were anointed with holy oil as well and integral to the spiritual life of the people. The ritual washings and purifications were done by the priests to make people 'clean' who had become 'ritual unclean' in some way. Jesus affirms this practice when the 10 lepers come to Him to be healed and He commands them to go show themselves to the priest. He acknowledges the physical need we have to connect to God in the many accounts of His ministry. Today we hear Him speak to the woman at His feet to tell her that her sins were forgiven and to go in peace. He didn't have to say it for it to become reality; as God He could have simply willed it to be and it would be. But for her sake and for the sake of those others at table, it was spoken aloud. Other times in His ministry He was even more clear, saying to the Father in John 11:42 'I know that you always hear me, but I say this for the benefit of those standing here with me, that they might believe.' The One who knit us together in our mother's womb and knows us better than we know ourselves over and again drives home the point that our faith is not simply spiritual or invisible, but is necessarily physical and tangible. That's part of the beauty of the sacrament - we can hear and receive the touch of mercy that we need. 

As I was reflecting on the letter to the Galatians in light of this question, though, it helped me to clarify why I feel a bit of sting when the need for a priest to receive forgiveness is rejected. And it comes down to this: if justification and salvation were possible by the works of the law, then Jesus died in vain. And if the forgiveness of sins can happen anytime with no need for a priest, what am I doing here? Why have I given up 12 years of life already and consecrated the rest of my life for the service of God, giving up wife, children, my own home, certain freedoms, and ability to shape my own future if you can just as easily receive mercy without my presence? The whole mission of the consecrated priest has one single goal: to remove the one thing that separates us from heaven, that thing being sin. The mission of Jesus was to reconcile the world to the Father by the destruction of sin. The priest follows the same path. Is it uncomfortable to confess one's sins to a priest? Absolutely! There have been many times where I intentionally went out of my way to go to a different priest simply so that I wouldn't have to confess to the priest the same things I confessed to him the week before - and I was a priest then! Being a priest doesn't make it easier to humble myself and admit my sins, unfortunately.  I, too, need that verbal assurance that brings about the tangible lifting of the weight on my heart that sin brings, to be told "I absolve you from your sins" and to be able to say it to others in the same manner as Jesus - I absolve you, I forgive you, your faith has saved you, go in pace. So, while it might be comfortable to think that we can simply go 'straight to Jesus', it is when we become a bit uncomfortable we become healthier - and that doesn't apply only to the body.