14 December 2006

Mission Three: The Sacrament of Conversion

Advent Mission Three: James 5.13-20
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
Sacred Heart Catholic Church, Alva, OK

I think of sin and repentance and I think of wild prophets going about the nations shouting at anyone who would come close enough to hear: Repent and believe! Seeing the sin—the broken friendships, the worship of false gods, the mistreatment of the poor and sick and widowed; seeing the hungry go unfed, the lonely left alone, the stranger ignored—seeing all this, the prophets stood up in righteous anger and pointed; they said Look! See! Hear! Listen! The Lord our God calls you, shouts out to you, Repent and believe that my Law will bring justice. And obey. Your hard-hearts and stony heads and heavy hands disobey my word and you fall into grave, given to death, from where you cannot praise me. Repent then and believe b/c you live to give thanks and praise to the Lord your God.

Surely it would be unusual to find a wildman prophet roaming the streets of Alva or Oklahoma City or even New Orleans or New York. A truly anointed prophet, called and sanctified by God to preach His Word among the people, is a rare thing these days. Our prophets are more subdued. Smaller and more subtle, perhaps. But prophets do what prophets do whether their public stature is great or small. Prophets call us back to God, away from our disobedience, to a life of lawful love, and forward into a kingdom of abiding peace and praise. A prophet hears the Word spoken out of his heart, words loudly proclaimed from his center, from where his human life touches the divine life and from where he finds the strength and favor to listen and obey. The single message of every anointed prophet is the same: Repent and believe!

Though I am no prophet, this is my message to you tonight. Turn from sin, to God, away from rebellion, to obedience and love, away from hatred, strife, diseased stress, to passionate charity, unity, and relaxation in the promise of our Father to bring you to Him if you will it and cooperate fully with His grace. My message tonight is that you are ill b/c of sin. Maybe not physically ill, but spiritually. To the degree that you are turned from God, you are turned toward sin and the sin you embrace is the sin that shapes your soul. What shape will your soul take on? Primitive violence? Consuming greed? Black despair?

What gift have you failed to use for the good of another and now in its disuse the Devil has found a way into your soul? He will twist truth into fiction, goodness into mere usefulness, and beauty into lust or gluttony—making what is attractive to us b/c it shows God’s beauty into an opportunity to abuse, defile, and exaggerate. The Devil is never happier than when he can tempt us into misusing our gifts for his ends. The Devil rejoices when we lie, refuse charity, and celebrate the ugly.

Have you ever thought of sin as a form of Devil worship? It is! We place his will for us, his desires for us, his needs for us at the center of our lives, dumping Christ from the tabernacle of our hearts and we replace the divine with the diabolical and pray, “Myself, who art on earth, hallowed is my name, my kingdom come, my will be done on earth as it is in heaven! Give me this day whatever I want. I have no sins to forgive b/c nothing is forbidden me. And I will never forgive those who have offended me. Lead me into every temptation and deliver me to evil as quickly as possible! For mine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory until I’m dead. Amen.” And why not, right? I mean, if we will not obey the Word of the Author of the universe, then we might as well obey absolutely the whims of our bellies, our eyes, our impulses and our excesses. And we might as well make a spirituality out of it, a whole religion for that matter!

Let’s review what we’ve covered so far during this mission: sin and grace. First, sin is an offense against God. It is a transgression, a trespass, and a violation of His will. Second, sin is a violation against reason; it is an irrational embrace of uncontrolled passion. Sin is a trespass on truth, a willful lie, a distortion of the Good and the Beautiful. And sin is a crime against right conscience, a deliberate move against one’s properly formed sense of the Right, an assault on what you recognize as God’s will for you and from us all. Third, sin is a failure to love God, neighbor, and self; because, fourth, we are attached to some good in the world, some impermanent good like food, sex, money, power, etc. In other words, we have replaced God in our lives with some other good, replaced The Good with a good. And now we find ourselves worshipping a creature, a thing in the world, an idol. Fifth, sin injures who we are as single creatures of God and it injures who we are together as a community of God’s creatures. Sin is chosen rebellion, a deliberate rejection of God’s Word, and it does bloody violence to our journey on the Way.

God’s grace lifts us to Him and makes our obedience possible. From the CCC, “Grace is favor, the free, undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become children of God, adoptive sons, partakers of the divine nature and of eternal life”(n. 1996). Thomas Aquinas teaches us that grace is God’s invitation to live the divine life with Him. Grace is not a mystical potion or spell; it is not measurable in feet or ounces; it is not numbered; purchased, sold, or borrowed. We cannot barter for grace or lend it on credit. Grace, by definition, is free. It is a gift. Unmerited. Undeserved. And without limit, unbounded. And we need it to say Yes to God. We need it to walk the Way. We need it to come through those doors, to step up to the confessional, to name our sins to God’s priests, to accept our penance, and hear with thanksgiving the words of absolution. We need God’s grace, b/c without that hand up we remain in darkness and envy the dead.

So what is required of us? Remember that we cannot earn or buy our way into God’s love. He loves us b/c He is Love. The question here is about how we are to respond to God’s love for us. First and foremost we are called to conversion, that is, we are required to change, to grow, to become people wholly perfect in God’s charity. How do we convert? Here’s a longish quote from the CCC on conversion: “Conversion is accomplished in daily life by gestures of reconciliation, concern for the poor, the exercise and defense of justice and right, by the admission of faults to one’s brethren, fraternal correction, revision of life, examination of conscience, spiritual direction, acceptance of suffering, endurance of persecution for the sake of righteousness. Taking up one’s cross each day and following Jesus is the surest way of penance”(n. 1435). These are all tasks that presume a disposition of humility and surrender. I’m not talking about a passive surrender to circumstance or a quietism or a relaxation of vigilance. What I’m saying is that the proper disposition for conversion is docility—an old-fashioned word that means basically meekness or submission. Again, not a hopeless surrender to fate but a hopeful submission to God’s will through His grace.

We’re talking trust here. Can you trust God to do what He says He will do? You are forgiven. But for that forgiveness to become effective for you, you must accept it. A gift is a gift only if it is accepted. This is why we pray during the offertory of the Mass: “Brothers and sisters, pray that this our sacrifice may be acceptable to God our Almighty Father. May the Lord accept this sacrifice at your hands…” No acceptance, no gift. Money in the bank helps with the bills only if you access it. Medicine helps to cure an illness only if it is taken. Untouched money is useless. Untouched medicine is useless. For God’s forgiveness to work its miracle in your life, you must accept it and put it to work for you. You are poised here tonight to take the first step in accepting God’s forgiveness: you are preparing for the sacrament of reconciliation! By being here and by moving closer to the sacrament, you are showing God and your fellow travelers that you trust our Father to keep His promises. That’s faith!

The Church recognizes two conversions. The first is the conversion from pagan to Christian in the sacrament of baptism. Having been made a member of the Body of the Christ and given a permanent seal of the Spirit, you are placed at the beginning of your journey to perfection and supplied with all that you will need to get to your destination. Along the way, you will ride across bumps, ruts, thieves, bad weather, and threats of abandonment! When we find yourself falling away from the shining path, you are called to a second conversion—the conversion of the sacrament of reconciliation. The CCC teaches: “Christ instituted the sacrament of Penance for all sinful members of his Church: above all for those who, since Baptism, have fallen into grave sin, and have thus lost baptismal grace and wounded ecclesial communion”(n. 1446).

The ancient Fathers of the Church called this sacrament the Second Plank of salvation, the second chance for conversion, reconciliation, and the return to God’s invitation of eternal life. Notice that the CCC teaches that the grace of Baptism can be lost, that is, it is possible for us to sin in such a way that the favor we obtained in Baptism is destroyed. This destroys our relationship with God and injures the bonds we share in the Church with our brothers and sisters. To be reconciled to the Church is to be reconciled to God. To be restored to the grace of baptism is to be welcomed back into the Body of Christ and right relationship with the Father!

Our return to the Church from the darkness of mortal sin requires the work of the Holy Spirit and our own work as well. The Spirit of God, working in Love and mercy, grants the human heart all that it needs to come to contrition, to confession, and to make satisfaction. Through His ministers, God will forgive any sin for which we are sorry, any sin we confess, and any sin we are prepared to make satisfaction for. You demonstrate that you are prepared to accept the gift of forgiveness from God by making an act of contrition and by completing the penance given to you. The priest’s absolution forgives your sins and the sacrament strengthens you to obey God’s will for you in the future. This is why the Church urges us to celebrate this sacrament frequently.

Let’s take a moment to look a little more closely at the three basic elements of this sacrament. This will give you a better idea of what is required. First, the CCC teaches that your contrition for sin comes first. What does this mean? Basically, are you truly sorry for your sins? Do you feel the division btw yourself and God, btw yourself and the Church? Are you convinced of the ugliness of your sins and the need for forgiveness? Motivated by a fear of being punished for our sins, we can be imperfectly contrite. We can also be perfectly contrite, meaning that we are sorry for our sins b/c we know that they offend God who loves us above all things! Both kinds of contrition are motivated by the Holy Spirits and both will move you to confession. However, to grow in holiness, to develop in spiritual excellence, it is best to cultivate perfect contrition. A life lived in terror of God—rather than in awe—is perilous and not particularly good for one’s own charity to others.

Second, the CCC teaches that once moved by contrition—sorrow for our sin—we are taken to confession, or the disclosure of individual sins. This is an opportunity for us to clearly name our sins, to give them an unavoidable identity, and to expose them to God’s priests for their destruction. To name a thing is to give it a personality, a “face,” if you will, and makes that thing difficult to ignore. Naming our sins to the priest makes it possible for us to recognize them later if tempted again. Using euphemisms like “impurity with another” or “used impure images” deflects the weight of the sin and fails to give it a proper face. Say, “I had sex with someone who is not my spouse” or “I looked at porn on the internet.” Think of the demons Jesus confronts during his ministry. He demands their names to expel them. Name the sin clearly in confession and take power over it in God’s name.

After we are moved by sorrow for our sin and brought to confess individual sins to a priest, we receive God’s forgiveness in absolution and then a penance is assigned. Why do we need to complete a penance? The CCC teaches that our sin damages not only the soul of the sinner but the Church as well. More than absolution is required to repair of sin: “Absolution takes away sin, but it does not remedy all the disorders sin has caused. Raised up from sin, the sinner must still recover his full spiritual health by doing something more to make amends for the sin: he must ‘make satisfaction for’ or ‘expiate’ his sins”(n. 1459). To be clear: your penance is not a purchase of grace; it is not the “price” of the sin you’ve committed. Your penance is your chance to take the grace of the sacrament and produce the first fruit of reconciliation: an act that openly repairs the damage you’ve caused.

Above all this is what you need to know about the sacrament we celebrate this evening: you are here b/c the Holy Spirit has thumped you on the head and said, “Go to confession!” We cannot pray w/o the urging of the Spirit. We cannot fruitfully partake of the sacraments w/o the Spirit’s help. If you are here tonight to come back to God and His Church, then you are here b/c God wants you back. You are feeling the longing for health, the desire for His love and peace. Your restlessness, the wandering, the anxiety, the frustration and anger are too much and the distance to travel back seems monumental and unbridgeable! It is monumental and unbridgeable. For you alone. You couldn’t cross the distance that one sin puts btw you and God if you lived twenty lifetimes. And that’s the point of this sacrament, brothers and sisters: you are here, on the edge of coming home, b/c God’s love has drawn you to Him, hooked you like a fish and reeled you in! And this moment of grace is the moment when you obey your heart’s deepest hunger and find perfect satisfaction in Him.

Honestly name your sin in sorrow. Resolve to follow Christ, bearing your cross, doing as he did, loving God, your neighbor, and yourself. Be God’s revelation of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty to those around you and treat them as God’s revelations to you. And above all, brother and sisters: give God thanks for His grace. If you will grow in holiness, if you come to flourish in Christ, you will have constantly on your lips a prayer of thanks to God. Give thanks for everything you have and everything you are. Yes, give thanks for the trials, the illnesses, and the weirdoes in your life. Everything in creation reveals the Father’s love and teaches us more and more about Him. Your gratitude makes you humble and your humility will open better and larger ways of living with Christ.

Here’s my final warning: if you pray in gratitude and grow in humility be prepared for an outpouring of blessings that will test your resolve to be grateful! Opening yourself to accept the Father’s blessing in thanksgiving, especially in the frequent celebration of this sacrament, is the fastest means to sainthood. And, before you know what hit you, the mantle of the prophet may fall on your shoulders and the Word of God may fall from your lips and you will say to the rest of us: Repent and believe!

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