As a kid, I offered my confession to a priest about once every month or so. I’d step into the dim confessional, draw the red velvet curtain behind me, kneel in front of the screen and list my sins to the shadowy figure obscured behind the window. My sins were always the same: disobeying my parents; gossiping with my friends; fighting with my sister; and telling small lies.
When I had listed my sins and recited the Act of Contrition, the priest blessed me and then sent me on my way with my penance, which, if I recall correctly, was always the same, too: two “Our Fathers” and three “Hail Marys.” While I waited for my mother and sister to finish their confessions, I knelt in the pew and completed my penance. It was all done in about 15 minutes flat.
When I read yesterday’s lesson from Luke about the barren fig tree, I admit, I flinched a little. It reminded me of my days of penance on the cushioned kneeler, my forehead resting on my hands as I leaned on the wooden pew.
Jesus says it twice, just to make sure we get it, and he doesn’t soften his words:
“You will perish, too, unless you repent of your sins and turn to God.” (Luke 13:3)
Let’s be honest – no one loves to hear the word “repent.” No one likes to come face-to-face with the stern, reprimanding side of God. No one likes to be reminded that our time is limited, that we don’t have forever to come clean with God. Frankly, I prefer the cozier Jesus — the one who beckons the children into his arms, over the one who warns that I’ll perish unless I repent.
As much as I may not have wanted to hear yesterday’s message, my pastor helped me understand why repentance is important. Confession, he told us, is only part one of the equation. Confession — being honest about our sins and shortcomings with ourselves and with God — is necessary and good, but it’s only the first step. Repentance — actually changing our behavior and turning back to God — is harder.
Repentance is work.
When I think back to my days of the confessional and penance, I can see what Pastor Greg means. When I was kid, I always wondered where I went wrong, because inevitably, I’d leave the church after confession with my clean, unblemished soul, only to commit the same old sins an hour or a day or a week later. The problem, I realize now, is that I viewed confession and penance as a magic bullet: list my sins to the priest, utter five prayers on the kneeler and voila…cured.
I wanted the reward without any work.
I confessed, and then I assumed God would do the rest.
It’s true, God bestows the gift of grace on each of us. But that doesn’t mean we don’t have a part to play. That doesn’t mean we skate through life, banking on the grace card until we sail into Heaven. Repentance is work because it requires change — a return to God, not just in our words, but in our hearts.
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