Last week, the Vatican in Rome announced a slight change in the formula for absolution during the sacrament of reconciliation. Henceforth, instead of the priest saying, during the prayer of absolution: “God the Father of mercy … has sent the Spirit upon us for the forgiveness of sins”, he will say “God the Father of mercy…has poured out the Holy Spirit upon us“.
I like that change, I must admit. It gives the idea of a gushing forth, a waterfall of grace given by the Spirit during the sacrament of reconciliation. It goes with other words from the Bible, like this one from the first letter of St John: “Think of the love which God the Father has lavished upon us, by calling us his children, and that is what we are“ (1 Jn 3: 1). Or this one, from St Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, where he describes the “riches of the grace which God has lavished upon us, through his Son, Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 1:8). These words all tell us that God is no mean Scrooge kind of figure, who resents giving us anything by way of blessing. No, he wants to pour forth, gush forth grace and blessing and gift upon us in abundance. Jesussaid that he had come bring us “life in abundance” (John 10:10). And the greatest gift, the greatest blessing, the greatest life God can give us, and has given us, in our baptism, is that of the Holy Spirit. In John’s gospel, we are told that God does not ration out meagely the Holy Spirit. No, he “gives , or pours out, the Spirit without measure” (John 3: 34). And that Spirit is to be experienced especially fully in the sacrament of confession.
Now, I think that it is a safe bet to say that most of us have never experienced anything like such an outpouring of love and grace when we went to confession. In fact, for some of us, it was a time of great misery and even trauma, where we left the confessional feeling worse than when we went in. For some, especially those who were burdened with some great sin or sorrow, being able to confess it, get it off our chest, and be forgiven, made us experience a great lightness and joy, as if some heavy weight was removed from us. But for most of us, it has been an experience akin to going to the dentist, something we know to be necessary from time to time, but which we dread going through.
Perhaps our feelings have been influenced by encountering in the confessional a priest who growled like a bear at us, and put the fear of God, literally into. How sad, how truly sad, because that was never the reason why Jesus instituted the sacrament in the first place. When he stood in the upper room on the night that he rose from the dead, he said to his disciples: ”Peace be with you. As the Father has sent , so I send you“. Then he breathed on them and said “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven” (John 20: 21-23). It is clear, then, that Jesus wanted the sacrament of forgiveness of sins to be for us an experience of the grace and peace of the Holy Spirit. If it has not been that for us, brothers and sisters, I think that God wants that to change. I believe that the change in words mandated by the Vatican is God’s way of saying to us that, henceforth, when we go to confession during Lent, we will experience the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, filling us with grace and peace. I challenge you to come and experience that for yourself during this Lenten season, brothers and sisters.
I expect that you will still be feeling some kind of resistance, or reluctance nonetheless, to following up on this. Let me say at once that, beyond any natural feelings of uncertainty you may have, that the devil will be trying his utmost to stop you following through on your resolution to come to the sacrament. The devil is, as the gospels tell us, a liar, a murderer, and an accuser, who only wants to steal, kill and destroy (John 10:10), who wants to rob us of any grace that we might get from confession, who wants to kill the desire for holiness within us, and who wants to destroy our faith and trust in God, and in his Son, Jesus. Believe you me, if there is any good to be had from going to the sacrament of reconciliation, the devil will want to stop you taking hold of it. So he will plague your mind with doubts, fears, a sense of unworthiness, bad memories and reluctance. Pay no attention to him and his lies and accusations. St James says in his epistle: ”Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Stand up to the devil, and he will run away from you“ (James 4:8).
Making the resolution to come to the sacrament of reconciliation during Lent is just one of the ways in which, if you are disposed to take the season of Lent seriously, that Satan will be at you to tempt you away from good choices and decisions. If you have resolved to give up some harmless pleasure which you enjoy, be ready for the devil to assail you with temptations to break your resolution. If you are used to comfort yourself with ice-cream or chocolate or alcohol, and you decide to give that up during Lent, expect for the devil to take advantage of any trouble you may be going through to try to tempt you to go back to your treat. If, being more positive, you have decided to put more time into prayer and spiritual reading during Lent, be ready for the devil to give you a restless night so that you find it really difficult to get up in the morning for that extra time of prayer that you promised God to do. Expect that times you have set aside for prayer and reading the Bible will be interrupted or taken from you by unexpected events. If you know you have a particular area of spiritual weakness, such as anger or lust or envy, and you resolve to really work on changing this during Lent, don’t be at all surprised to find Satan afflicting you with temptations to give in to precisely those sin areas you have resolved to change.
I don’t at all want to fill you with a counsel of despair, brothers and sisters. I believe firmly what St Paul says in his first letter to the Corinthians: “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and will not let you be tempted beyond your strength, but with the temptation he will also provide the way through, so that you may be able to endure it .” (1 Corinthians 10: 13). Or what St Peter says in his first letter: “Discipline yourselves; keep alert. Your enemy the devil is prowling around, looking for someone to devour. Stand up to him, strong in your faith, knowing that your brothers and sisters throughout the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering. And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, you has called you to ho his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen and establish you” (1 Peter 5: 8-10). As the Book of Job in the Old Testament affirms wisely “Prayer is warfare to the last breath”.
Yes, we will be tempted, strongly. We are running a marathon through Lent, not a sprint. The devil will at us continually, if, as I have said, we are resolved to do the whole Lent thing seriously. But there is, as St Paul says, “ a way through”. What is that way? It is the way Jesus took in our gospel today during his temptations. Firstly, he let the Holy Spirit lead him through the time of trial. Secondly, he used the word of God, known as the sword of the Spirit, to refute Satan’s lies. Thirdly, he refused to allow the devil to do what he always wants to do with us: sow the lie that God cannot be trusted, cannot be trusted to love and care, to support, to help and protect us. It is the lie that did for Adam and Eve in our first reading, who chose to believe what the serpent told them, that God was holding out on them, that he wanted to deny them something which would be good for them, and that if they were brave enough, and independent enough, to stand up to God and disobey his tyrannical rules, they would be totally free and happy. Of course, as we know, or should know, and as Adam and Eve were to find out to their cost, the absolute opposite of what the devil claimed was true. Far from being freer and happier, the result of giving into temptation has been greater suffering, greater bondage and greater misery, for us and for others whom we hurt.
Fourthly, Jesus used the practice of fasting to strengthen him for the trial, and to give him greater clarity as to the right thing to do. And finally, and most importantly, Jesus never doubted what his heavenly Father had said to him at his baptism “You are my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11). This is our true identity, brothers and sisters, which we should never forget. Remember that passage from the first letter of St John that I quoted earlier: ”Think of the love that the Father has lavished upon us, by calling us his children, AND THAT IS WHAT WE ARE”(I John 3:1). The devil’s main attack on us will lie through trying to steal, kill and destroy our awareness of our privileged identity as beloved children of God, filling us with a sense of our sinfulness and shame, our unworthiness for heaven, our pathetic failures to live up to our calling and identity. Don’t let him. Plunge into prayer, plunge into reading of the Bible, plunge into the Church’s teaching, this Lent, brothers and sisters, stay as much as you can, in the realm of God, the atmosphere of the Holy Spirit, the presence of Jesus. And resist, through fasting and almsgiving and prayer, any and every attempt by the devil to take you out of there.