It seems to be a contradictory way of thinking for us to believe that sacrifices and the focus we might offer to penance would have much to do with joy at all. During this Advent season, we are preparing our hearts and minds for the greatest gift God offered us in His Son coming into the world to offer all of us salvation and an eternity with Him in heaven. Nothing could be more joyful, and the way we celebrate today lends itself to that great joy. But we are reminded by today’s Gospel that penance or repentance as John the Baptist puts it – is part of the season as well. We hear both John and later Jesus begin their message and the ministry that follows with “repent”.
Having had the life experience of many years with little or no faith, I have a slightly different perspective than others. I certainly would have been the first one as a teenager or young adult to criticize Catholics for too much penance. I can’t say I had any real understanding of the Catholic practice of confession, but it would have been high on my list to criticize because what little I knew of Christianity was that there was too much worry about sin and wrongdoing. Most of my lifetime was spent on the outside looking in, and the worry made it seem that for the Christian, lives were wasted with this and not living life instead. Now I am on the inside looking out and I hear the continued criticism offered on this but I have come to see things differently now.
Catholic Christians do not focus on sin; and if they do that’s wrong. When I meet a penitent who seems overly mired, distressed, concerned or focused on his or her sin, or a particular sin; I try to get them to relax a bit. I ask them to trust the Lord a little bit more, regularly confess their sin as they are doing, but use the freedom from sin (the grace of absolution) to get on with the best parts of being Christian – bringing Jesus Christ and His amazing message of salvation to others. Let God sort out your weaknesses and give you a boost of grace.
What changed my perspective on all of this was not a teaching, was not a book, was not anything other than having enough trust in my faith when I became Catholic to face my fears and go to confession myself. I encountered the Lord in the most amazing ways right there. My whole life of faith has been a constant call for me to trust the Lord more. It’s hard for an adult convert, I think especially for one like me that was not always positive about “religion” to trust in the Lord and the Church. I, like so many, see the human weakness that is the human dimension of the Divine Reality. But I trust the Lord brought me to His Holy Church and so I trust in Him and in His Sacraments. It was probably one of the most difficult experiences for me to go to confession, but I did and I know the freedom from my sins as I confess them. I also know that at its best, as it often is – the counsel I receive fills me with greater faith, hope in abundance and I leave the confessional a better person, ready to be a better person and live my faith to the fullest.
Penance, repenting of my own sins and weaknesses, letting go of these things and acknowledging that they will not and do not have dominion over me allows me to grow as a Christian and be the best one that I can be. Sisters and brothers, let us all consider the words of the Baptizer today and may we free ourselves from what holds us back from the greatest joy our lives will ever experience. May God bless you.