“Receive the Holy Spirit,” said the risen Lord to his apostles. “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven. If you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” The sacrament of Penance, instituted by Christ himself, is one of the greatest gifts of Divine Mercy, but it is widely neglected. To help rekindle a new appreciation for such a profound gift of Divine Mercy, the Register presents this special section.
Blow the trumpet in Zion! ... Even now, says the LORD; return to me with your whole heart, with fasting, and weeping, and mourning; Rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the LORD, your God (Joel 2:1,12-13).
When the Lenten season opens each year on Ash Wednesday, there goes up an urgent cry in the readings and in the liturgy. The prophet Joel sets the theme, and St. Paul repeats it:
“We implore you on behalf of Christ: Be reconciled to God! For our sake he made him to be sin who did not know sin. We appeal to you not to receive the grace of God in vain. For he says: In an acceptable time, I heard you, and on the day of salvation, I helped you. Behold, now is a very acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation” (2 Corinthians 5:20-25).
And as ashes are imposed, the Church reminds us why there is this urgent call: “Remember that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return.” In other words, “You are going to die, and you don’t get to say when or how.” The Book of Hebrews says what comes next: “It is appointed to us to die once, and after that to face judgment” (9:27).
You and I, though we face judgment one day, are now living in a time of grace and mercy. During our time in this world, God extends every necessary grace to save us. God showers us with sanctifying and actual graces, instructs us with his word; heals us with his sacraments; gives us Mary and the saints to inspire us and pray for us; and instructs us through the sacred teachings of the Church.
And all of this points to the kairos of the sacrament of confession. Kairos is a Greek word for a special or particularly opportune moment; something which is fitting or apt for a particular time. St. Paul uses this very word in the passage above saying that now is a very acceptable time. As long as we live, there is time and abundant grace to repent and experience healing that will bring us to the holiness without which no one will see the Lord (Hebrews 12:14).
The sacrament of confession is the key since, of all the sacraments, it is focused on our most serious problem, our sin. We tend to think our most serious problems are things related to our health or finances or worldly injustices we face. No, not even close. Jesus says it is more serious to sin than to lose our eye, our hand or foot (Matthew 5:29-30). Jesus looked at a quadriplegic lowered down before him and said, “My son, your sins are forgiven” (Matthew 9:5).
Had we been there we might have said, “Hmm … Jesus, actually, his problem is paralysis.” Humorously, Jesus might reply, “Oh! I didn’t even notice that.” And then, of course, he went on to deal with the man’s second-most-serious problem and enabled him to move again.
All humor aside, our sin really is our most serious problem. We make light of it, but God does not. The kairos of confession roots us in this essential insight that we not make light of our sin or go on calling “good” or “no big deal” what God calls sin. One of the chief errors of our day is to speak of mercy without reference to repentance. But repentance is the key that unlocks mercy. Mercy does not mean God is okay with my sin. It is just the opposite: Because God is not okay with my sin, I need his mercy and forgiveness.
Those who go to confession understand this, admit their sin, repent and unlock the mercy that is available now, in this kairos moment. Now is the acceptable time; now is the day of salvation.
The Lord bids us to make use of this time of grace and mercy he extends now, for the day is coming when the grace of mercy will end and judgment will be rendered with strict justice.
As St. Paul writes:
“God will repay each one according to his deeds. To those who by perseverance in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow wickedness, there will be wrath and anger. There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil … for God does not show partiality” (Romans 2:6-11).
Thus, grace and mercy are fitting (kairos) for now. But on judgment day, justice is fitting. Yet even in this there is hope we can bring to the moment of judgment, for part of God’s justice is that he will use the standard of judgment that we have used for others: The measure that you measure to others will be measured back to you (Matthew 7:2). Elsewhere the Lord teaches, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will obtain mercy” (Matthew 5:7). And James says, “For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy” (James 2:13).
Hence we who live are in a critical time of preparation for the Day of Judgment by repenting of our sins, receiving mercy and showing that same mercy to others. In the sacrament of confession we are drawn to take seriously the Lord’s many warnings in the parables and elsewhere that we must be prepared by him for that awesome moment; a moment when we stand before him and our acceptance or rejection of his kingdom and its values will be forever fixed. Acknowledging our sins, we unlock the grace of forgiveness and the grace to avoid sin in the future. We give the Lord permission to gradually and steadily give us a new mind and heart that acknowledge and desire the gifts he is actually offering.
Nothing is more helpful than regular confession along with Holy Communion, Scripture, spiritual reading and holy fellowship.
Now is the time; now is the place. Turn from your sins; return to the Lord. It is the kairos of confession: It is fitting, opportune and apt to confess our sins now and receive mercy now, while it is still available.
Msgr. Charles Pope is a priest of the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C.