As you probably know, we’ve been looking at a book together this Lent,
called The Seven Secrets of Confession, and today,
I’m going to look at the third and fourth “secrets.”
Meanwhile, the readings are all about baptism.
So what do the sacrament of penance and baptism have in common?
Well, a lot actually.
Let’s back up and talk a little about baptism.
I would bet almost all of us
were baptized as babies – sometime in our first six or eight months.
We forget that it isn’t always that way; and in the early Church,
most baptisms weren’t of babies, but of older children, or adults.
And in many places around the world, that’s still true.
The thing is, when those who are above the age of reason –
around 1st or 2nd grade – come to be baptized,
it’s significantly different. They have to prepare for baptism.
In fact, they would spend months, or years,
of prayer and learning and penance.
In fact, the last six weeks, before their baptism at Easter,
would be a time of intense mortification, with daily prayer and fasting.
That is the origin of the 40 days of Lent.
During those days of intense preparation,
they were challenged to examine themselves closely,
and acknowledge their sins, for which they wanted to be forgiven.
Then on the Vigil of Easter, celebrated between midnight and dawn,
when they would line up, and one by one, come forward to be baptized,
and in that baptism, they would have all their sins taken away.
Now, what do we do with the sacrament of penance?
We examine ourselves, we come forward, one by one,
we acknowledge our sins, then?
Instead of the priest extending his hand and pouring water over us, what does the priest do?
He still extends his hand,
and if you will, he “pours” absolution over us!
So it’s not exactly a “re-baptism” – I don’t want to mislead you there.
But at the same time, we should recognize the resemblance.
In the sacrament of penance, we renew and if needed,
revive the life that was born in us in baptism.
In the early Church, they would speak of two “planks” of salvation
for someone who is shipwrecked by sin:
the first plank was baptism; and the second was penance.
So let’s dig into what our book talked about.
In chapters 3 and 4, the author emphasizes first,
how personal our confession is for each of us;
and also, how our time in the sacrament
is a very personal encounter with the Holy Trinity.
Mr. Flynn points out that, yes, we do have
these ready-made lists of sins, which help us to examine ourselves.
But we want to beware a “one size fits all” mentality.
It’s not just a matter of running down the list,
check, check, check, done! For our grade schoolers,
that’s often how they do it, and that’s a fine way to start;
but the goal is to go beyond that.
So, for example, our author explains in some detail
the distinction between mortal and venial sins –
and, also, how even in the case of mortal sins,
one person can be more to blame than the next person.
Same sin – but different circumstances.
I can remember when I was a boy,
sometimes one of my older brothers or sisters
would get in more trouble than I would, for the same thing.
And what would my parents say? Same as your parents:
“Because you knew better!” That’s sort of how it works.
It’s one thing to steal something from a store on a dare;
it’s another to do so with cool deliberation.
Here’s where it gets challenging:
each of us should be seeking a dialogue with God,
so that we aren’t just checking boxes,
but we are really opening our heart – every corner of it –
to the One who created and redeems us.
We might think of the dialogue that happens in the Gospel.
Jesus seeks out this woman. When she first starts talking with him,
little does she realize how important this meeting will be;
it will change her life!
And so it is with us. The sacrament of penance can change our lives,
especially when we get beyond the routine, the quick in-and-out,
and open ourselves to a dialogue with God.
You might say, I know how to talk to God,
but I don’t know how he talks to me.
It’s not the same for everyone, but I truly believe
if we want to experience this – in some fashion! – we will.
Note I said, “in some fashion.”
Some people really sense God’s voice inside them;
maybe they hear words.
Some of us have been involved in “Charismatic” prayer meetings,
and maybe you’ve even had someone speak up,
and say something they believe comes from God.
This isn’t for everyone, but God can do all these things, and more –
so we shouldn’t be too quick to rule it out, either.
For others, we do some reading, especially of Scripture,
and we just know – “this is for me.”
Sometimes people just feel it in their “guts” –
they know when the Holy Spirit is pushing them to make a change,
or to take some action.
A priest I know says, if we don’t ask for miracles, we won’t get them.
I agree, and I would add: if we don’t even seek
to hear God in some way, we make it a lot less likely we will.
But I reiterate: God is speaking. I think it’s sort of like this.
Have you ever been up late on a summer evening,
and everyone goes to bed, and you turn off the TV,
and maybe you have the window open, and finally, finally,
when everything is totally silent: you start to hear things?
Crickets, frogs, and if you really listen,
you can hear things from even miles away.
If we want to hear God speak, it’s like that.
Other things have to be “turned off.”
That kind of preparation, when it becomes a habit,
helps us come to the sacrament of penance less as something to dread,
or as a quick drive-through, and more as it truly is:
a personal encounter with the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit,
who created us, who died to redeem us,
and who longs to fill us and change us and make us supremely happy,
in this life, and the life to come.