Homily – December 11th, 2011
PENANCE – SACRAMENT
December 11, 2011
In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic novel, The Scarlet Letter, action revolves around the scaffold in the central square of the small Puritan village in seventeenth century Massachusetts. In this village of strict religion, the offender must endure the stares and opprobrium of the public. Because Hester Prynne has borne a child out of wedlock, she must suffer the obloquy of the scaffold and thereafter wear a bright red or scarlet letter A on her outer garment.
The male partner will not come forward, and Hester will not reveal his name. Thus Arthur Dimmesdale lives for seven years in Remorse and Cowardice; at the end of this time, on the scaffold, Dimmesdale admits his part in the adultery. The admission frees his spirit, but his sin, having remained a secret, has worn out his body. Now having declared his share in the adultery, Dimmesdale drops down exhausted and dies on the spot. The hiddenness has physically destroyed him.
Last week we spoke of Baptism as our initiation into Christian life. John the Baptist used washing to symbolize a person’s fleeing the dominance of Satan and his coming under the impulse of Christ into the Christian community. Baptism is a once-for-life choosing to live as Christ lives. This week we speak of Penance, of the sacrament that heals the rift that may occur during an adult life.
Jesus confronted sinners and brought forgiveness. We recall our Lord speaking to a crowd in His own house. Because so many people attended to Jesus as he spoke, a foursome carrying a paralyzed man could not gain entrance to the house. These litter bearers climbed on the roof and removed the roof tiles to clear a hole.
They lowered [the paralyzed man] on the stretcher through the tiles in front of Jesus. When he saw their faith, Jesus said, ‘As for you, your sins are forgiven.’ Then the scribes and Pharisees began to ask themselves, ‘Who is this who speaks blasphemies? Who but God alone can forgive sins?’ Jesus knew their thoughts and said to them in reply, ‘What are you thinking in your hearts? Which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk?’ But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins’—he said to the man who was paralyzed, ‘I say to you, rise, pick up your stretcher, and go home.’ He stood up immediately before them, picked up what he had been lying on, and went home, glorifying God. Then astonishment seized them all and they glorified God, and, struck with awe, they said, ‘We have seen incredible things today’ (Luke 5: 18-26).
This awakens us to Jesus’ inherent power. The Scribes and Pharisees spoke correctly when they asserted that only God can forgive sins. True. Only the aggrieved person might justly forgive an offense.
In February 2001, the United States Navy was involved in a tragedy in Japanese waters. The USS Greenville, a nuclear submarine, in a showcase event, surfaced from the depths at attack speed. By accident, it struck the Japanese training vessel Ehime Maru, and the collision immediately caused the death of nine Japanese. In subsequent months, I attended a talk at which our U.S. Ambassador, Mr. Thomas Foley, spoke of the incident. As Ambassador Mr. Foley had immediately apologized to the Prime Minister and to many government officials. President Bush formally apologized. However, the Japanese required an apology from the U.S. Navy; subsequently, therefore, the proper admiral apologized.
We humans recognize that only the sinned against person can forgive sins. Jesus Christ, the second person of the Trinity, could forgive sins. He told the paralyzed man to walk in human proof that the man’s sins were absolved.
Having suffered the cross even unto dying there, our incarnate Lord has risen from the tomb and now appears to the disciples gathered in a Jerusalem upper room. “Peace,” says Jesus. “And when he had said this, [Jesus] breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the holy Spirit. Whose sin you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained” (John 20: 21-23; cf. also Mt. 16:19; 18: 18).
From that hour forward, the Church has brought God’s forgiveness to individuals seeking reinstatement with their Creator. The Council of Florence (1439) summed up the teaching of the Church. Penance is a sacrament, consisting of contrition of the heart, oral confession to the priest, satisfaction such as assigned prayer, absolution by the priest. In the sacrament, an individual’s offenses are washed away.
Psalm 51 arouses in us a feeling of sorrow for refusing God. “Have mercy,” begins this lament to our Lord.
Have mercy on me, God, in your goodness;
In your abundant compassion blot out my offense.
Wash away all my guilt;
From my sin cleanse me..
For I know my offense;
My sin is always before me.
Against you alone have I sinned;
I have done such evil in your sight. (1-6) In the Scarlet Letter, the true sinner Arthur Dimmesdale lacked sufficient courage to admit his guilt. Although he realized his weakness, he failed to lay open his fault. Tortured for years, the guilt gnawed at his health until, finally confessing on the scaffold, he died reconciled to the community and to God.
Confession is not easy. Realizing our sin, we, nonetheless, harbor our sin. In this time of Advent, we seek to make straight the way of the Lord. Let us fill in the valleys and level the mountains that separate us from the Lord. By confessing our weakness, we seek to open ourselves to the way of the Lord. I encourage all of us to advantage ourselves of confession and thus to prepare for the coming of our Redeemer. Amen!