“Blessed be [He] who in His great mercy gave us a new birth....”
On this Sunday’s solemnity of Divine Mercy, the Church calls us to rejoice that the Sacrament of Confession, and the peace that flows from it, are the “first fruits” of Jesus’ Resurrection. In the Old Testament, the People of God—Israel—gave to Him the first fruits of their harvests, although they were so precious and needed for life. In the New Testament, on the other hand, it’s God who gives to His People—the Church—the first fruits of the Resurrection of His most precious Son.
Many of our separated brethren claim that there’s no need to confess one’s sins to a priest. Against such a claim stand the words of St. John the Evangelist, who tells us that just a few hours after Jesus’ Resurrection, He showed Himself to His apostles, “breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.’” Consider from three perspectives the first fruits that flow from this gift of the Holy Spirit.
First, Confession reflects the nature of the sinner. God established a sacrament where we are required to confess our sins to another human being—indeed, a fellow sinner—to receive the benefits of the sacrament. God knows that if He made the default for forgiving sins the direct confession of one’s sins to God, then the average sinner would grow spiritually weaker over time.
For example, if you start a confession of your sins directly to God and have trouble remembering them, it’s easy to say, “Well, God knows everything. I don’t need to remember all my sins.” That can begin a habit by which the sinner presumes more and more on God’s goodness, and demands less and less from oneself.
From the opposite perspective, the priest is not likely to know our sins. So the burden is on each of us as a penitent to present ourselves honestly to God through a thorough account of our sins to the priest. But one of the benefits of Confession is that the more honest we are about our sinfulness, the more we appreciate the beauty and abundance of God’s mercy.
Second, Confession reflects the nature of the Church. The priest in Confession represents not only God, but also the other members of the Body of Christ. One of the many problems with the idea of just confessing one’s sins directly to God is that our sins are offenses not only against God.
When Jesus taught His disciples about God’s commandments, He explained that they boil down to two: to love God, and to love our neighbor. This two-fold command is symbolized by the Cross on which Jesus died for us. The Cross has a vertical beam symbolizing the love meant to flow between me and God, and a horizontal beam symbolizing the love meant to flow between me and my neighbors. As Jesus Christ is fully God and fully man, the priest in Confession represents both God and man: my God and my neighbors.
Third, Confession reflects the nature of God Himself. On the evening of His Resurrection, Jesus breathed on the apostles, and said to them: “Receive the Holy Spirit.” In Confession the penitent receives this same Holy Spirit, and if we know one thing about the Holy Spirit, it’s that He’s never satisfied to give life when He can give life abundantly.
In Confession God not only forgives your sins, but gives many other gifts as well. The Catechism at the end of its summary of Confession lists all of them, but perhaps most important among them is “an increase of spiritual strength for the Christian battle” [CCC 1496]. This gift is why we ought to make a sacramental confession at least once every few months even if we don’t have any mortal sins to confess, but only venial sins.
After all, what is one of hardest parts of “the Christian battle” if not forgiving those who have hurt you? There are times in every disciple’s life when it’s so difficult to forgive, that it would be impossible to do so through human efforts alone. But we are never alone. The divine forgiveness that we receive when our sins are forgiven in Confession strengthens us to in turn offer human forgiveness more easily to those who have wronged us.
Some people think Confession is only about the washing away of the sins of one’s past. But Confession is not only about the past: it’s also about the future. Confession is about God equipping us through His grace for the days ahead. Confession prepares us so that when we leave the confessional we might serve Him as bearers of the Divine Mercy that flows through the Holy Spirit, so that we might love God and neighbor as God Himself loves.