Saturday, March 2, 2013

"I absolve you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit" (Reflections on the Woman at the Well & an Often-neglected Sacrament, on the Third Sunday of Lent, John 4:5-15,19-26,39,40-42)

There are many things that distinguish us Catholics from our Protestant brothers and sisters. None perhaps makes such distinction more pronounced than that which, in the Catholic faith, allows us to speak of ‘sacraments’, to use ordinary signs and symbols like oil, bread, and wine, to regard good works as important in "working out our salvation, with fear and trembling" (Phil. 2:12), and finally, to see such things as crucifixes, rosaries, holy water, scapulars, etc., as revelatory, albeit in a very limited way, of God’s presence in our lives.

But what exactly is it that allows us Catholics to hold such a deeply "sacramental" understanding of life and of existence itself?

It's the profound Catholic belief that God’s creation, no matter how fallen, fragile, and sometimes fraught with pain, evil and suffering it might be, remains fundamentally good (Augustine of Hippo, The Confessions). In spite of the narrative of the Third Chapter of Genesis (the Fall), Catholicism has always insisted that the true ‘lens’ by which we should see all of life remains the heart of the First and Second Chapters of Genesis (the goodness of everything God created) as well as the restoration of all creation and the redemption of fallen humanity, through the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Christ. 

The ancient Fathers of the Church even had interesting names for this reconstitution: anakephalaiosis, the "return of all things to the head" (Irenaeus of Lyon), or apokatastasis, the "recapitulation or restoration of of all things to their original or primordial condition" (Origen). These, of course, are ideas that are deeply rooted in Scripture itself. The Acts of the Apostles, for instance, speaks of Jesus as the one who is to bring about "the final restoration (ἀποκαταστάσεως) of all things" (Acts 3:21).

In contrast, Martin Luther’s thought—which in a very deep way affects fundamental Protestant theology, anthropology, and its view of the world—remains anchored in the story of humanity’s Fall. All grace has been lost, human nature, everything in this world, including nature itself is fallen, sinful, corrupt, and depraved. We are all, in Luther’s words, “piles of dung”. There is no "restoration" for the sinner in this way of thinking, only judgment and redemption in Christ. There is simply no "return" to an "original" state of grace, for that has been forever lost on account of the Fall.

How then are we saved according to the father of the Protestant Reformation?

Jesus, Luther argues,  “cloaks” us with himself, wraps a mantle or blanket around us so that when God sees us and is about to strike us down for our wickedness and transgressions, he instead sees his Son, and relents.

That is perhaps one of the most basic differences between Catholicism and Protestantism. Catholic theology represents a strong insistence that despite the Fall, God’s creation did not lose its inherent goodness. God’s grace which was our original birthright was not totally obliterated and destroyed. God’s grace continues to lift nature and human nature allowing it to reveal or manifest His presence.

"Grace", says St. Thomas Aquinas, “does not destroy nature, but builds on it and brings it to perfection”. And so we Catholics believe that ordinary bread and wine, water, signs, symbols, statues, words, gestures, our works, our community—even if they are weak and inadequate, are disclosures of God’s continued presence.

This Sunday, I invite us all to reflect upon this profound and beautiful truth about our faith tradition and relate it to one of the Catholic sacraments that’s often neglected, and misunderstood, at times, even by us Catholics ourselves: the Sacrament of Confession or Reconciliation.

Ask a non-Catholic (or at times even a Catholic himself) why he doesn’t believe or go to Confession, and the response you’ll most likely get is: “I confess my sins directly to God. The priest is just a human being. Who is he to hear my confession and forgive my sins?”

Do you know that we priests are supposed to go to Confession ourselves? Canon Law reminds us priests of the value and importance of going to Confession. When I first entered seminary, that was one of the first things I wondered about: "What am I going to do when I’m a priest? Who’s going to hear my confession?" Well, the answer turned out to be quite simple, another priest.

“I go directly to God himself”—while the statement sounds very pious and devout, underneath it is really an idea that goes directly against the heart of what it means to be Catholic.

For what the statement is really saying is this: “I go directly to God himself, because I really have difficulties trusting anything and anyone on this earth, because everything and everyone on this earth is fallen, sinful, corrupt, depraved, and perverted. I trust no one. I believe no one; in fact at times, I don’t even trust myself”.

It is, perhaps, the ultimate non-Catholic statement.

In today’s gospel reading, we notice something peculiar about the Samaritan woman’s actions. She’s getting water from a well about a mile outside town—in the middle of the day, when it’s too hot in the area and you could get sunstroke. Why? She was avoiding people. She meets Jesus and immediately she’s defensive: “Why are you, a Jew, and a man, asking me, a Samaritan, and a woman, for a drink?” Jesus asks her to call her husband and she says: “I have no husband”.

He tells her about worshipping God, and she responds by going around in circles. This was a woman who was paranoid, who trusted no one, not her neighbors, not Jesus, and not even herself. “I have no husband”. This was a woman who seems to have completely lost sight of the goodness of others, of the world, and even of herself. Why should she trust anybody, when everybody looked down on her because of her situation?

She was probably afraid of being condemned, of being looked down upon, of being shunned and made an even bigger outcast by this Jewish man who was now asking her for water to drink. Her inability to trust was rooted in fear. Instead, Jesus reveals to her the truth about herself, “Truly you have no husband, for you’ve had five, and the man you’re living with now isn’t your husband either”.

But there was no condemnation in his voice. Only love, only acceptance, only grace, and finally, freedom.

And she needed to hear that. She needed to feel that. She needed those words coming from the lips of another human being.

We are after all, creatures of both spirit and flesh. We need to hear things, see things, taste things, feel things. We need to know, but also to experience in a flesh-and-blood way, the genuineness of God's unconditional love.


As a student in seminary, and even after ordination, I've always felt something that wasn't only comforting, calming, and reassuring, but also powerfully and profoundly real whenever I hear those words spoken to me by a priest: "I absolve you, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit".

I know my sins are forgiven. I experience God's undying love.

The Sacrament of Reconciliation, of Confession, is a way for us to have the same experience the Samaritan woman had, to hear and to listen to the sound of those words spoken to us. It isn’t the priest who forgives us—because like us he too is sinful. Rather it is God, who despite the fallenness, weakness, and sinfulness of human nature and of creation—still reveals himself to us through these instruments.

That is what we Catholics believe. That is what separates us and distinguishes us from our Protestant brothers and sisters. That is what allows us to believe in signs, in symbols, in our good works, in bread and wine, in the sacraments. The Samaritan woman experienced the healing power of God spoken through words. Perhaps this Lent, you may consider the Sacrament of Confession once again, and allow yourself to hear God’s words spoken through the lips of a sinful creature, who like each one of us, no matter how sinful, can be used by God to reveal his presence in the world.

When was the last time we came to the Sacrament of Confession? God is not forcing us to do it. Nor will the church. But today, we are all invited, to consider it once more. And like the Samaritan woman, allow ourselves to hear words Jesus himself speaks to us:

“I absolve you from all your sins, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit”.

"The Kingdom of Heaven is a condition of the heart." (Friedrich Nietzsche)