Sin is sad business. But in the confessional, we see God’s grace at work.

“Inferno,” by Walter Crane, 1861 (Wikimedia Commons)  

A Reflection for the 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Isaiah 25-10a Philippians 4:12-14, 19-20 Matthew 22:1-14

We all need manna. Our spirits need to be nurtured as we journey to the land Christ promised, where manna’s purpose will have been met and the table of the Lord is spread.

On this mountain the LORD of hosts will provide for all peoples a feast of rich food and choice wines, juicy, rich food and pure, choice wines (Is 25:6).

This is no less true of priests. Like anyone else, we can focus on the task at hand and forget our need to be nourished. Fortunately, in the profound providence of God, some of a priest’s most demanding duties are also the most nourishing.

Confession is a good example. Most of my friends in the priesthood do not speak of approaching the confessional with much natural enthusiasm. Listening and paying attention is no easier for us than for anyone else, and whatever human interest there might have been in hearing the sins of others vanishes so quickly in the vocation as to leave little trace.

Listening to the lives of others, the confessor sees the work of the unseen Spirit. He sees saints in the making, holy ones in the flesh. 

Sin is sad business. It weighs on the heart, even of the one who only hears of it. Stripped of its allure, sin seems so senseless, so stupid. There is nothing exciting about it. Why then do I so often say that if it were possible for a young man to shadow a priest through one hour of confessions, that youth, any one of them, would want to be a priest?

There is the manna! A confessor is offered a small glimpse of God’s glorious grace. Listening to the lives of others, the confessor sees the work of the unseen Spirit. He sees saints in the making, holy ones in the flesh. They see themselves as sinners, but if God’s grace had not claimed them, they would not be in the confessional.

Not long ago, someone said to me: “Father, for all the sorrow and trouble Covid-19 has caused, it’s also been a blessing to me. It’s made me think about who I am before God and who I want to be.” Someone else said: “I know that I have been putting this off, but lately I’ve become so aware that I’ve lost my way. How does it happen that we find ourselves to be lost? Why didn’t we see what was happening?”

It is an ancient act of awareness, this discovery of ourselves as lost. Dante opened his epic poem about God’s grace in just that way:

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
Mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,
Ché la diritta via era smarrita.

Midway in the journey of our life
I came to myself in a dark wood,
For the straight way was lost.

To encounter God is always to discover ourselves. God’s love, God’s holiness reveals our own sinfulness, much as a gentle response from another can suddenly rebuke our own unkindness.

It is such a common experience. We see something of God’s presence and then see ourselves as sinful. That is the burden of being a confessor, and if I were a holier man, it would be much heavier. How often have I heard a saint confess a sin only to realize that the same belongs to me? They ready themselves for the feast, and I am suddenly aware of my own sorry state.

God’s love, God’s holiness reveals our own sinfulness, much as a gentle response from another can suddenly rebuke our own unkindness.

God is gracious and merciful. God wants all to come to the wedding feast. Yet discovering that you have indeed forfeited God’s grace is the point of Christ’s parable of the wedding feast. It is possible that we could come into the presence of God only to realize that we are incapable of remaining. No doubt, among the damned are those who have heard confessions. Not because they have had the temerity to hear sins while knowing themselves to be sinners. No, because even having seen God’s gracious mercy active in our midst, they have failed to repent.

When the king came in to meet the guests, he saw a man there not dressed in a wedding garment. The king said to him, “My friend, how is it that you came in here without a wedding garment?” But he was reduced to silence. Then the king said to his attendants, “Bind his hands and feet, and cast him into the darkness outside, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.” Many are invited, but few are chosen (Mt 22: 11-14).

The parable is so pointed. What is transport and treasure for the saints would be torment for the damned. God’s mercy does not fail, but it is still possible to damn ourselves, to close ourselves off from life, from love, from God.

Of course, the grace for the penitent, for the confessor and hopefully for all of us is that this happens in the dark wood of this life. We come to ourselves and realize the straight way is lost, and we call out for the God of mercy. Let us pray that it does not happen when we stand in the unerring, all-revealing light of God’s face, and know that, to our eternal regret, we cannot bear this much truth, this much love.

More on this Sunday’s readings:

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