The Word Among Us

June 2008 Issue

Confession and 
the Cross

Building a “Culture of Repentance”

Confession and 
the Cross: Building a “Culture of Repentance”

It’s Pentecost Sunday in Jerusalem, and the apostles have just been filled—and surprised, no doubt—by the Holy Spirit. A crowd forms, and everyone is trying to figure out what is going on. That’s when Peter steps up and offers an explanation. His preaching is passionate, joyful, and powerful. And at the core of his message is a proclamation that continues to be central to the message of the gospel: “God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2:36).

At these words, the people are cut to the heart, and ask what they should do. “Repent,” Peter tells them, “and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins” (Acts 2:38). And with that, the church was born.

This story from Acts shows us how closely linked the Sacrament of Reconciliation is to the cross. It shows us that at its heart, repentance involves our freely choosing to ask God to take away our sins—the sins that Jesus died for. Peter called the people to repent because he knew that sin had damaged everyone’s intimacy with God, and he knew that Jesus had come to restore us by dying for our sin. All we have to do is accept his cross as our way of forgiveness and reconciliation.

The Power of the Cross. Taking his cue from the preaching of Peter and all the apostles from Pentecost onward, St. Paul told the believers in Corinth: “The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18). In other words, Paul considered those who didn’t accept Jesus as being in a risky position. If they could not accept his preaching about the cross, they might well perish.

Some of these “high-risk” people made the mistake of demanding even more signs from God to prove that Jesus was the Messiah. Others simply dismissed the story of a crucified and risen Savior as a foolish myth (1 Corinthians 1:22). According to Paul, neither group had any right to demand something or to reject the cross. Their positions were pure folly.

Paul contrasts these foolish people with those who “are being saved” because they have accepted God’s plan of salvation. They understand how sin has separated us from God. They know that God chose to resolve this separation through a humble but majestic sacrifice, an act of love, through death on the cross. These people accept and proclaim Jesus as their Lord and Savior.

Those “who are being saved” know that, on their own, they cannot remedy the division that sin causes. They know that the only way to be reconciled with God is through Jesus’ cross. They know that repentance brings God’s forgiveness and mercy.

This is the plan that so many people—both then and now—consider to be foolish. But this is also the plan that has enabled those who believe to embrace Jesus as “the power of God and the wisdom of God” 
(1 Corinthians 1:24). For these people, Jesus is not just a crucified preacher; he has become for them “righteousness, sanctification, and redemption” (1:30).

“How Great Is the Cross!” The saints knew all about the power of this cross as well. They saw in the cross the promise of a restored relationship with God, power to resist Satan, and divine grace to help them follow Jesus’ example of selfless giving.

For example, St. Andrew of Crete said: “How great is the cross; what blessings it holds. He who possesses it possesses a treasure. . . . For in it and through it and for it all the riches of salvation were stored away and restored for us.” St. Anthony of Padua said: “Behold the cross. Fly, all you powers of darkness; the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the sword of David has conquered.” And St. Thomas Aquinas said: “Whoever wants to live perfectly should do nothing but disdain what Christ disdained on the cross and desire what he desired, for the cross exemplifies every virtue.”

All of these statements—and so many more from many other saints—are living testimonies that the cross is God’s remedy for all our sins. They also urge us to look to the cross for the divine power we need to deal with our sins and to experience intimacy with Jesus. These saints knew that God wants us to put our whole faith in the cross and to rely on its power in our daily lives.

Reconciliation through the Cross. Can you see the link between the cross and the Sacrament of Reconciliation? At its very essence, Confession depends on the cross. And at the same time, it is in Confession that the splendor of the cross can shine in a unique way.

Every time we celebrate this sacrament, we are placing ourselves before the cross and saying, “Lord, I am both humbled by your mercy and overwhelmed by your love. I believe that because of your cross, I can be healed and made whole.” And in response, Jesus repeats his prayer from the cross: “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).

And that’s when we experience the power of Jesus’ cross in its full glory. As our confessor speaks the words of absolution, we can feel the cross at work in us, delivering us from the bondage of sin and the shame of separation. We can feel the cross of Christ bringing us into a new freedom and giving us more of the power we need to say no to sin and temptation.

Confession and Transformation. In a very real way, going to Confession restores to us the innocence and freedom that we had when we were baptized. It washes us clean, removes all condemnation, and awakens in us the desire to die to ourselves and to rise with Christ. As we open our hearts to our confessor, we are also proclaiming our desire to live a new way—to renounce sin, to resist temptation, and to seek intimacy with God and with one another. And in response, Jesus pours out all the grace and power we need to live according to this new way.

In 1984, Pope John Paul II wrote an apostolic exhortation on the Sacrament of Reconciliation, in which he said that confession is a “liberation in the very depth of self.” He also said that experiencing this liberation fills us with “the joy of being saved” (On Reconciliation and Penance, 31). If we want to know this liberation in the very depths of who we are, it means that we need to come to the sacrament—and the cross—regularly, so that we can receive God’s help to peel away every layer of sin in us, everything that is opposed to Jesus.

Just as a cook peels an onion, God wants to peel away all the outer and “crusty” layers of our hearts, so that the goodness, purity, and love that he placed within us can shine through. Every time we celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation, it is as if another outer layer is peeled away, and we are set free to become a little more like Jesus.

A Culture of Repentance. St. John Chrysostom once said that every family is called to be a “miniature church,” a place where Jesus is worshipped and his commandments are lived out in unity and love. This means that each of us is invited by God to build a culture of faith wherever we live—whether it is with our families, in a convent or monastery, or even behind prison bars.

No matter where we live, God asks us to make our home a place that is set apart to give glory to God. He wants us to build environments of prayer and love, and unity and faith, little oases of grace that produce the fruit of the Holy Spirit. And the truth is, we can do this only to the degree that we incorporate repentance into our everyday lives.

While the Sacrament of Reconciliation offers us a wonderful grace, it is not always possible, or even appropriate, to go to Confession. Of course it is necessary for grave sin and very valuable for lesser sins, but the grace of Reconciliation can flow in our homes when we make private repentance a daily practice. In this regard, daily repentance is not supposed to be a substituted for Confession. Instead, it is a way of bringing the grace of Confession home so that we can build a culture of faith right where we live.

So how can we make this practice a part of our lives? Every evening, preferably right before you go to bed, look back over your day and see where you may have turned away from Jesus, whether through sin or just plain complacency. Then tell him that you’re sorry. Tell him that you believe in his cross, and ask him to wash you clean. Then believe that you have been forgiven. This simple practice can fill you with God’s peace and make you an instrument of his peace in your home.

Receive the Gift! Brothers and sisters, God really does want to be close to us. He really does want to shower us with his love and grace. And it is through the gift of Confession and daily repentance that we can clear the way to receive all he wants to give. May we all become generous, humble receivers of this precious, life-changing gift!