26 February 2008 Tuesday of the 3rd Week of Lent
Daniel 3, 25, 34-43; Psalm 25; Matthew 18, 21-35
The historical background of the book of Daniel in the first reading was the time of the Seleucid ruler Antiochus IV Epiphanes who wanted to Hellenize the Jews of Palestine in 175-164 BC. He tried to force the Jews to abandon their ancient religion and to practice the common pagan worship of his kingdom. The result of this was the Maccabean revolt. The purpose of the book of Daniel was to encourage the Jews to remain faithful to their ancestral religion at the time when they were seduced by the worldly and pagan culture of Hellenism, and the threat of death and persecution if they didn’t abandon their faith. Moreover, the author of the book of Daniel offered us a viewpoint: God who is the master of history used the rise and fall of kingdoms, who ‘deposes kings and sets up kings’ (2, 21) to establish His eternal Kingdom.
The Season of Lent invites us to reflect on our faithfulness to God. In the midst of the allure of contemporary culture such as forms of entertainment and material wealth, we too are encouraged to keep the faith. However, we all know the difficulty. We can count the times we have been disloyal and unfaithful not just to God but to others. Our sinfulness are inumerable, that is why Jesus said that the number of times we have to forgive should also be infinite. Forgiveness is what can transform us: it would change our relationship with God and others, and it would have a subjective change in ourselves. Hannah Arendt said that it is forgiveness that heals us of the wounds of the past; so that we can move on and forge our future. Without forgiveness, we cannot set our lives into motion; we will be stuck in the past. The purpose of the Sacrament of Reconciliation is not the ‘feeling’ that we get when we are forgiven, but true metanoia or transformation.
The confession of sins in the Sacrament of Reconciliation is a grace from God; but it is also an event, something which we do. We just don’t go to confess; we also ask forgivenesss from our brothers and sisters. The last verse of the Gospel should give us a clue: The Father will not forgive us unless we forgive our brothers and sisters from our hearts. The Our Father affirms this: ‘and forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us’ --- meaning, “forgive us our sins in as much as or in the degree we forgive those who sin against us.”
The difficulty of confession I guess is in our fear of vulnerability. We cannot show our failure and shortcomings to others. We think that we are the only ones who have sinned while the others are already advancing towards heaven. We think that when we worship, we worship as a community of saints, before we see that we are a community of sinners. Therefore, we tend to hide ourselves and live a life of deception and pretension. That is why James said, “confess your sins to one another” (James 5, 16) and Jesus gave the authority to receive the confession of sin to his followers: “Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them; whose sins you retain are retained” (John 20, 23). There is no other way, but to tell another our sins. That is why at the beginning of the mass we say, “I confess to Almighty God and to you my brothers and sisters….”
What then can confession make of us? First, faithfulness is truthfulness. Confessions removes our pretensions. Our warts and all are exposed to another. 1 John 1,19 tells us “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just.” We become honest to ourselves. When the words of absolution makes clear the forgiveness of our sins, the Holy Spirit seals it through the words of the priest. We need to hear that we have been forgiven! Like a closure in a relationship.
Second, we are given the opportunity to consider our sins. The prayers given after one confesses known as penance, is not our punishment or meant to earn forgiveness: three Our Fathers are never commensurate to the damage or hurt we have caused another by our sins! The prayers are supposed to help us pause, reflect and consider the seriousness of our sins, and then, when we see its evil, the accompanying revulsion and repugnance should lead us to holier living. The purpose of penance should help us move into a deeper sense of our sinfulness; so that when our hearts are grateful for being forgiven, we grab the opportunity to change.