Advent is a time of preparation, a time of celebration, and a time of reflection. If our minds and hearts are truly focused on the season as a time of preparation for the birth of Christ, then we must enter into an intentional examination of our relationship with the Lord and make our hearts a fitting place for the infant Jesus.
One way we do this is through the Sacrament of Reconciliation; most parishes offer communal penance services for this purpose. Parish Advent penance services are certainly necessary and invaluable, but typically they are only held once or twice a year. And sadly, even though the Church has long recommended the practice of regularly confessing even our venial sins, few Catholics go to confession more than once or twice a year. Perhaps it will be spiritually beneficial to make our Advent penance a catalyst for more frequent confessions throughout the entire liturgical year.
The sacrament of Reconciliation is often misunderstood by non-Catholics and underused by cradle Catholics, who view it either with suspicion or trepidation. We all remember the slight feeling of terror that crept over us as children when it was time to confess our darkest sins, such as lying to our parents or cheating on homework; as adults, we sometimes still approach the confessional with that same sense of dread.
Frequent confession helps us to put our childhood fears behind us and open our hearts to the counsel offered by the confessor. This helps us to grow in virtue, to develop a firm purpose of amendment, and to undergo continual conversion in our spiritual lives.
When we frequent the sacrament of Reconciliation, it becomes not a punishment, but a means of loving conversation with our God.
In his General Audience address in St. Peter’s Square on February 19, 2014, Pope Francis spoke of the need to ask for forgiveness and emphasized that it is not something we can give to ourselves. Acknowledging our need to ask for forgiveness strips away our stubborn self-sufficiency and assumptions that we can get ourselves into heaven by good works, meticulous rule-following, or outward shows of holiness.
“First, the fact that the forgiveness of our sins is not something we can give ourselves,” Pope Francis stated. “I cannot say: I forgive my sins. Forgiveness is asked for, is asked of another, and in Confession we ask for forgiveness from Jesus. Forgiveness is not the fruit of our own efforts but rather a gift, it is a gift of the Holy Spirit who fills us with the wellspring of mercy and of grace that flows unceasingly from the open heart of the Crucified and Risen Christ.”
Once we have begun the process of reconciling ourselves to the Lord, the process of renewal can begin; of repairing the damage sin does to our souls. Each time we choose to commit even the smallest transgression against our loving God, our soul is affected, darkened and altered by our decision to abuse the free will we have received, even in seemingly harmless matters. Free will is never rescinded and time stops for no one; additionally, our actions have a ripple effect and every choice we make has consequences for ourselves and others. We must begin again, over and over, and the grace of God allows us to do this.
Consider a potter at a wheel. If a slight imperfection is made and the wheel spins, the potter’s creation continues to err, becoming more and more misshapen as the process continues. So what does the potter do? He doesn’t throw the clay away and dispose of it. He returns it to its original shape and begins again.
Our loving God, in His infinite wisdom, gave us a sacrament of loving reparation, of granting pardon for injury, of returning grace for insult, of soothing our hurts when we have fallen and restoring us to full sonship. This means that no matter how far we stray from the will of the Father for our lives, He will always and forever welcome us back into his good graces and point us back to the way of salvation.
Frequent Confession and Ongoing Conversion
Restoring the lost practice of more frequent confession is essential if we desire to not only repair our relationship with our Creator, but to also nurture and sustain it. Seeing confession as an ongoing conversation with the Lord and a means of acquiring virtue in order to open our hearts to the ways Jesus wants to be a more intimate part of our daily lives.
Pope John Paul II was a devotee of frequent confession himself and shared his love for the sacrament with others. During an address to the Tribunal of the Apostolic Penitentiary on March 28, 2004, the future Saint said, “frequent confession is a must to achieve personal holiness.”
“The fruit of the sacrament of reconciliation is not only the remission of sins; it also performs an authentic ‘spiritual resurrection,’ restores the dignity and the good of the life of the children of God, the most precious of which is friendship with God.”
He went on to say, “Penance is the sacrament of enlightenment. Those who go to confession frequently and do so with the desire to make progress, know they have received in this sacrament, through pardon from God and grace from the Spirit, a precious light for the path of perfection. From confession to confession, the faithful feel an ever deeper communion with the merciful Lord, up to fully identifying with Him, that one has in that perfect ‘life of Christ’ in which true holiness consists.”
Ongoing conversion and rebirth lead us to embrace the desire for humility, and it is there that we meet Christ. In this spirit, Pope Francis chose a humble, hand-carved wooden creche from Udine, Italy for the Vatican’s Christmas 2022 Nativity scene. It is a symbol of humility and simplicity that appropriately reflects that first Christmas Eve. At the inauguration ceremony held inside the Vatican’s Paul VI Audience Hall, the Holy Father met with the delegations that donated the Nativity scene and asked them to “live out the spirit of Christmas, embodied by a God willing to become a child out of His love for humanity.”
Pope Francis’s comment was very poignant: “It is necessary to lower yourself, to make yourself small, to leave all vanity behind, in order to reach where he is.”
As the Advent season draws to a close, may we approach the sacrament of Reconciliation not with dread or trepidation, but with a renewed sense of peace and confidence in God’s mercy, embracing the loving forgiveness he offers in this most sublime of sacraments. May we rest in full confidence that the best Christmas gift we can give to ourselves and others is a determined effort to change our hearts and resolve to become the man or woman God created us to be.
Image: Adobe Stock. By Natalia.
Kristi McCabe is an award-winning freelance writer, Catechist, a former teacher and editor who lives with her family in Owensboro, Kentucky. As an adoptive mother of four and an adoptee herself, Kristi is an avid supporter of pro-life ministries. She is active in her local parish and has served as Eucharistic minister and in various children's ministries.