If you were to sum up the Christian message in just a few words, what would they be? If someone asked you to explain in a nutshell what we believe as followers of Jesus, what would you say?
Would you describe Christianity as a system of ethics? Would you talk about the Church’s structure of bishops, priests and deacons? Would you call Christianity simply a way to connect to the divine?
While there is some truth to all those statements, they only partially describe what Christianity is. In its essence, Christianity is about nothing else than the man, Jesus Christ. As a Church we exist solely to proclaim to the world that God became man in Jesus Christ to forgive our sins and to restore our relationship to the Father. Everything else - the Church’s moral teaching, its hierarchical structure, its charities - exists for no other reason than to help us bring Jesus Christ into the world and to make Him known.
That is why the Church’s message is called “good news”. It is the joyful proclamation that God loves us, that He knows us by name, that He sees our struggles, sufferings and hardships, and that He has come to save us. The essence of the Christian message, then, is that “God so loved the world that He sent His only Son not to condemn the world but to save it.” And that salvation shows itself in the forgiveness of sins.
The first man to proclaim this good news was John the Baptist. Saint Matthew tells us that he was sent by God to proclaim the coming of the Messiah. His job was to prepare the people for Christ’s coming by offering a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Moved by his proclamation, the people came out in droves to accept baptism and confess their sins.
Baptism is the first sacrament that Jesus left us for the forgiveness of sins. Most of us would have been baptized as babies so we were too young to commit any actual sins. Instead, we would have been forgiven of the guilt of original sin which we inherited from Adam and Eve. Nonetheless, it is Jesus’ first offer to us to join His heavenly family.
Though baptism takes away the guilt of original sin, it does not totally take away its effects. Even after baptism, we are able to be tempted and to fall into bad choices. Since we can only be baptized once, Jesus left us another sacrament for the forgiveness of sins - the Sacrament of Reconciliation or “Confession”.
The Sacrament of Reconciliation has been called the “Second Baptism”. While we can only be baptized once, we can turn to the Sacrament of Confession over and over again as often as necessary to be returned to the purity we enjoyed on the day of our baptism. What a wonderful gift God has given us in this beautiful sacrament!
As with all God’s gifts, we have to be careful to treat it with reverence and respect. It is a common misperception that all you have to do to be forgiven is confess your sins and then you can go back to sinning again. Nothing can be further from the truth. For the Sacrament of Reconciliation to have a real saving effect in our lives, we must show true sorrow for our sins and resolve never to commit them again. As John the Baptist warns the Pharisees in today’s gospel, “Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance.” Just so, we who seek forgiveness for our sins in the Sacrament of Reconciliation must perform some action to show that we are sorry them.
That action is called “penance”. A penance is some good work we perform to demonstrate that we are sorry for having offended God and that we are resolved to lead a good life from now on. Very often, after confession, the priest will ask us to perform a penance for just this reason. Frequently the penance is prayers - whether it be a number of Our Fathers or Hail Marys - on behalf of the people we have harmed through our sins or to ask God for strength against temptation in the future. Another noble work is to offer up the difficulties of our day to God as a way of showing sorrow for the difficulties our sins have created for our brothers and sisters. Penances such as prayer and good works give us a first good step toward living a new life. We should always be willing to undertake sacrifices joyfully whenever we have the opportunity so that we can live out the freedom from sin that Jesus won for us on the cross.
For many of us, the most difficult part of the Sacrament of Reconciliation is having to tell another person our sins. We fear what the priest will think of us and wonder what he will say when he hears all the wrong we have done. It is very natural to think this way because we live most of our lives trying to show our best self to others. When it comes time to take off the mask and show the real person underneath, it can be terrifying.
However we must always remember that the priest is there to stand in for Jesus. When we confess our sins, we are confessing them directly to Jesus. We are letting Him know how sorry we are for hurting Him and we hear from Him that He forgives us. Pope Francis in talking about confessions said: “Confessing our sins is not going to a psychiatrist, or to a torture chamber. Some say: ‘Ah, I confess directly to God. It’s easy, But it’s like confessing by email, no?' God is far away, I say things and there’s no face-to-face contact.” The Sacrament of Reconciliation allows us through the priest to hear the voice of God’s compassion reassuring us: “Go in peace, your sins have been forgiven.”