11th Sunday OT: 2 Sam 12.710, 13; Galatians 2.16, 19-21; Luke 7.36-8.3
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St Paul Hospital, Dallas, TX
Let’s say you are going to confession. You pour your heart out to the priest, truly rending your soul of every sin and making an Act of Contrition that brings tears to your eyes. The priest gives you a merciful penance and then pronounces absolution, “…I absolve you from all your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” Right that second! How do you feel? What do you feel right that second? Relief? A burden lifted? Do you feel happy or clean or do you feel a little mischievous, like you’ve gotten away with something diabolical? Do you feel sad or pleased, or do you feel nothing at all? Except perhaps the weight of the sins you have just confessed? Maybe you are thinking and feeling that the absolution didn’t “take.” Didn’t work for me. Maybe if I do my penance, then I will feel like it worked. Maybe if I do my penance twice or three times, it will work. Or maybe you’re on the other side of this problem; maybe you feel nothing after the absolution, so you conclude that confession and absolution are pointless. What’s the point if I don’t feel guilty for my sins in the first place, and I don’t feel relieved after I confess and receive absolution? I feel OK with God right now and that’s enough for me.
Let me ask you this—regardless of how (precisely) you are confused about confession—why does the sinful woman wash Jesus’ feet with her tears, drying them with her hair and anointing them with oil? Why does this sinful woman risk being violently ejected from Simon’s house? Why does she expend her precious oil on this gesture? For a favor? To be paid? For attention? To feel better about herself? No. No. No. She humbles herself in these acts of service to Jesus in order to show him Great Love. Have you ever been to confession for no other reason than to show your Lord Great Love?
I’ll confess: I never have! For some reason I have always thought of confession as a sacrament about Me. My confession. My contrition and penance. My absolution. Now, I feel better—even if for no other reason than I’ve completed an expected task. How very sad. How sad that anyone would approach the sacrament of reconciliation as a duty to perform, as a task to just get done. Over with and out. But given the drives and lusts of our secular culture, are we really surprised that this sort of distortion is so common? So deeply soaked and thoroughly wetted are we in our middle-class pragmaticism and materialism that we come to understand the mysteries of the Lord’s sacraments in purely functional terms, in simply practical or utilitarian terms. Have you ever heard someone say, “I don’t go to Mass anymore b/c I don’t get anything out of it?” Insert pretty much any religious practice in place of “Mass” in that sentence and you get what I think of as the typical American Catholic response to the faith. The pragmatic notion that we must “get something out of” a commitment or a promise or a vow is absurd in light of this morning’s gospel. The Great Love that Christ shows us from the Cross and the Empty Tomb is freely given, no strings attached. Can we love as freely? Even if there is nothing to be gained personally, can we love so purely, so excessively, so overwhelmingly so?
We can if we will. Paul writes to the Galatians, “I have been crucifed with Christ; yet I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me…” You see the genuis of the Catholic faith is that nothing required of us is truly required of us alone. We admit from the beginning that we can do nothing without first receiving the grace, the gifts, necessary to complete the task. Even our desire to cooperate with God’s various gifts to us is itself a gift. Our completed tasks in grace are no more responsible for saving us than any number of goats slaughtered and burned on an altar. We are not made just by our works. In other words, we cannot work our way into holiness apart from the God of grace that motivates us to do good works. Paul writes, “We who know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ even we have believed in Christ Jesus…b/c by works of the law no one will be justified.” We are made just when we are crucifed with Christ (in baptism) and when he abides in us (in confession and Eucharist) we remain just. We can proclaim with Paul then, “I live by faith in the Son of God who has loved me and given himself for me.”
Can we, then, be members of the Body of Christ, the Church, who participate in the ministries of the Church not for pragmatic gain, nor the need to “feel something,” nor in the hope of fitting-in, but b/c we long to show Christ a Great Love, the love that he first showed us on the cross and shows us even now on this altar? Can we do what the sinful woman did: freely, openly, purely, and without caring about gossip or any negative consequences, can we express our Great Love for Christ and one another with the gifts of tears—humility, forgiveness, mercy; and the gifts of service—teaching, preaching, healing, feeding? Can you show others—for no other reason or purpose than your Great Love for Jesus—can you show others the Christ That Lives In You? And can you show them that Christ did not die for nothing but that he died and rose again for everything, everyone, everywhere? And can you show them that b/c he died and rose again for everything, everyone, everywhere, that they too, saying YES to his gifts of trust, hope, and love, that they too can shine out a Christ-light for all to see, that they too can wash filthy feet with repentant tears and anoint them freshly clean with precious oil?
If you can do all this, and you can, why could it possibly matter how you feel about it? Angry, depressed, joyful, exhausted, pitiful, happy—does it matter? Truly, does it matter? No, it doesn’t. Be careful: do not let fleeting emotions (no matter how passionate!) bargain with the triumphs of Love. Feel what you feel and Love anyway. Be angry and love anyway. Be depressed, exhausted, spiteful, and love anyway. Be elated, ecstatic, on cloud nine, and nearly uncontrollably happy, and love anyway. Be bored, isolated, cranky, and mean, and love anyway. Christ did not die for nothing. He died for you. And you are not nothing. You are everything to him. We are everything to him. Yes, our sins betray us! But his Great Love forgives us. Our debt is always canceled, always forgiven.
Knowing this, can you serve others, with Christ living in you, serve others as Christ served you?