Since many second graders will soon be receiving their first Sacrament of Reconciliation, it seems like a good time to reflect on this awesome gift that Christ has given to his Church.
Jesus said to the apostles, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (John 20:23). Jesus has the authority to forgive sins because he is God. So, why did he empower the apostles (and their successors) with this authority? Why would God want people to tell their sins to men? God hears us. Why put some man in the middle?
In the Old Testament, people were supposed to tell their sins to a priest. However, the priests could only offer up animal sacrifices, which could never completely take away sin. In the New Testament, Jesus offered himself as the ultimate sacrifice which fully takes away sin. He fulfilled the Old Testament. “Fulfilling” does not mean “destroying.” Jesus did not abolish the Old Testament. Jesus completed the Old Testament. So, now when we confess to a priest, it is a complete, fulfilled sacramental cleansing of sin because it is based on the sacrifice of Christ, not the blood of bulls and goats.
That still doesn’t explain why God insists on having a man in the middle. People often ask, “Why not confess directly to God? Why go to a priest? Here are a few reasons:
- When we sin, we sin against God, the Church and our fellow human beings. So, it makes sense to apologize not only to God, but also to the Church and to a fellow human being. Confessing to a priest includes all three of these elements. Making amends with individuals we have wronged is, of course, important whenever possible. The priest will likely encourage such actions.
- Most people will admit that it is usually easier to apologize to God in the silence of one’s heart than it is to apologize out loud to another human being. Let’s face it; it’s very humbling to speak your sins out loud to another person and hear your own voice admitting what you did wrong. I see this frequently in counseling sessions with couples. It can be very difficult to say out loud to someone, “I’m sorry!” This is because apologizing is an act of vulnerability. Vulnerability is essential to intimacy. The Sacrament of Reconciliation helps us to be truly humble, vulnerable and intimately connected to God in our relationship with him. It’s harder to go to confession because it “keeps the relationship real” so to speak. You have to “put it all out there.” You can’t hide within the silence of your own thoughts.
- Can God hear you speak to him without a priest? Sure. But, can you hear God speak back to you? Of course, God can “speak to your heart” in many ways. However, God did not create you as only a “heart.” He also gave you a physical body with five senses. Assuming that all five senses are working properly, God expects you to use those senses in your relationship with him (as we do with each other). That’s why the sacraments incorporate the five senses. Through the priest, you get to use the ears God gave you to actually hear the words, “I absolve you of your sins.” Your spirit AND your body are involved as God intended. Jesus ascended to Heaven, but he still has a voice for us to hear. What a blessing!
- Imagine having a disease that is difficult to diagnose and treat. Your prayer to God may be, “Lord, please heal me of this disease!” Now, imagine that circumstances place you under the care of a doctor that just happens to have obscure knowledge and understanding of what ails you. The doctor performs a procedure that cures the disease. You are overjoyed and proclaim, “Thank you, Lord, for sending that doctor to me!”
Now, who cured your disease? Was it God, or was it the doctor? The answer is BOTH! So often, we see things from an either/or perspective when we should be looking at the both/and perspective. God cured the disease by sending a doctor that had the curative power. The Sacrament of Reconciliation is similar. We go to God for forgiveness. God provides a person to whom he has given the power to be his instrument (the priest). God and the priest work together because God wills it.
Rejecting the role of the priest in God’s forgiveness is similar to rejecting the role of a doctor in curing a disease. Because we are created as spiritual AND physical beings, it makes perfect sense to include both aspects of our being in a relationship with God. This is why Jesus gave us the sacraments. They are outward, physical connections to spiritual realities. God knows we need the sacraments because he created us!
For further reading on this topic: