Monday, November 10, 2014

Jesus Has Our back

This post is not simply about confession, but I must bring it up in light of my unique experience as part of my witness. As to the purpose and necessity of confession, contested among Christians, I can only say that sin does not occur in a vacuum. It very rarely affects only ourselves. When we sin we sin against not just our God but against the whole body of Christ, causing discord and scandal and laying stumbling blocks in the path of those who do not know our hope. It's a good, humble thing to confess our sins to each other as St. James (Letter of St. James 5:13-16) pointed out, and sometimes it is very necessary for healing relationships and for gaining new strength in the fight. If you want to know why Catholics practice confession, especially in light of the Eucharist, go HERE. As for my own personal experiences, sometimes after confession I have felt so joyous that I have wanted to eat a fat slice of chocolate cake; sometimes I have felt immense relief, unburdened; one time I felt deep dissatisfaction - and it was my fault for avoiding confessing the thing that was most necessary; and then there was this time when, despite the pain of the experience, I realized that Jesus had my back. 

This is a vulnerable post; even if you disagree with the need for the Sacrament of Confession as reconciliation after Baptism, please respect that.

I used to think I was one of the righteous ones, and it made me a little pouty.

(Whoa! How's that for a beginning? Be patient, and I will abase myself presently.)

Jesus said this in the parable about the lost sheep:

What man among you having a hundred sheep and losing one of them would not leave the ninety-nine in the desert and go after the lost one until he finds it? And when he does find it, he sets it on his shoulders with great joy and, upon his arrival home, he calls together his friends and neighbors and says to them, 'Rejoice with me, because I have found my lost sheep.' I tell you, in just the same way there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over the ninety-nine righteous people who have no need of repentance. Luke 15:4-7 (NAB)

I used to think, What about me, Lord? I'm trying. I love you. I'm on the right path! Don't I bring you joy?

Goodness, how self-centered and silly that sounds to me now, because I have grown up spiritually a great deal in the past few years, and I have realized that without a doubt I am not righteous. I am a lost sheep. Not always. Not every moment. But I am often. And even when I am not lost, I am always a sinner. We are all lost sheep at one time or another, and Jesus, our Shepherd, continually calls us back. If we belong to Him, we hear his voice. We may return with our eyes downcast and our hands dirty, but when we again stand at the foot of His cross, He lifts us high on his shoulders and proclaims that we are found!

And people wonder why we love Jesus so much! He always has our back. He died on the cross for our sins, the Lamb of God.

There have been several times in the last few months when I realized that Jesus had my back, and so my love for Him has grown, like that of the woman who washed His feet with her hair (Luke 7:36-50).

One Sunday evening at Mass as I prepared to take communion, I was weighed down by a very particular and serious sin, though I didn't fully realize its seriousness, or I would not have taken communion. As I reflected before getting up to receive Eucharist, I felt Jesus eliciting the promise from me that I would go to confession that next Saturday. It was a subtle but clear thought, and I responded, Okay, if you want me to, I will go to confession next week, Lord.

And so I went. Wow. That was a hard confession. For those who have no reference point for it, I could hardly explain it. Suffice it to say that in that confessional I realized the graveness of what I had done. I understood that I gave in to evil during a battle with temporary depression - I listened to its vile whisperings - and I saw clearly how my behavior could have affected my children had they been privy to it, and I was appalled. That was the hardest confession of my life, but then I knew; I knew why Christ had elicited that promise from me: He had my back. He knew, even if I did not, that I should not be receiving Him without the Sacrament of Reconciliation. What that priest said - kindly but firmly, concerned - was something I needed to hear, something I believe wholeheartedly that Jesus wanted me to hear, so that I would NEVER go down that dark alleyway again.

I came out of that confessional sobbing, and I went into the little chapel and sobbed more as I prayed. I was still crying as I went to leave the church, and just at that moment a middle-aged lady came out of the bathroom and asked, "Do you need a hug?"

I did, and I hugged this kind stranger long and hard, weeping on her shoulder. When I drew back, she kept a hand on my arm and said in compassion, "Don't worry. I've got this. I prayed for you, and I will pray for you again during Mass."

With all my heart I thanked her. In her words I felt Jesus holding out his hand to me, saying, Peace be with you, Hillary. I will not leave you an orphan. You have returned to me, and I will lift you high on my shoulders again, rejoicing.

For I was a lost sheep. I was lost, but now I'm found.

It's my job to joyfully witness to other lost sheep, to tell them the good news that Jesus takes us with all our faults, all our sins and all our baggage, and His truth frees us and makes us new. While doing so I will have to pray continually for the strength not to stray from my Shepherd again, especially when depressed. But I will not fear. I will put on the armor of Christ. Jesus has my back.

Finally, draw your strength from the Lord and from his mighty power. Put on the armor of God so that you may be able to stand firm against the tactics of the devil.  Ephesians 6:11

In all circumstances hold faith as a shield, to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. And take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. Ephesians 6:16-17

Therefore if you bring your gift to the altar, and there recall that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there at the altar, go first and be reconciled with your brother, and the come and offer your gift. Matthew 5:23-24

For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost. Luke 19:10 (NAB)

Friday, November 7, 2014

Sunlight on the Forest Floor: Marriage

I found it a little ridiculous that the media made such a huge deal about the couples Pope Francis married more than a month ago. They pointed out that some of the couples had been cohabitating; one already had a child. They declared that Pope Francis is so much more open, and this is an additional sign of change (for the better, they would argue). They hinted that similar couples might have been booted out before, shunned, and denied the power and fulfillment of marriage.

Marriage to them is merely a choice, I suspect, to enter into a visible contract. What they don't understand about marriage makes all the difference in their interpretation.

The Catholic Church has a very definitive idea of marriage. It is, like rebirth in baptism, one of the Sacraments instituted by Christ:

Some Pharisees approached him, and tested him, saying, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause whatsoever? He said in reply, "Have you not read that from the beginning the Creator made them male and female and said, 'For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh'? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, no human being must separate." Matthew 19:3-6

Therefore we don't just say it is a great institution. We don't simply point out that it creates the most beneficial situation in which to raise children. We assert that it is a Sacrament, a visible sign of inward grace, that this man and woman are now entwined in their journey towards God and will receive blessing and strength from Him as long as they seek Him together. The couple confer the marriage Sacrament on each other as they stand before God and profess their commitment to the good of each other and of any children with whom they may be blessed. It is a beautiful thing infused with the love of the Almighty God and representative of it. Therefore, it is far more than an expensive ceremony that trumpets to the world, We're finally getting hitched!

It is far more than common law. (People who live together and have sexual relations are not married in the eyes of God. That is not their intention in entering into a sexual relationship.) It is a much deeper understanding than the simple legal agreement before the state that offers a break in taxes, a sharing in health benefits and the shared custody of children. It is more even than the wonderful celebration of marriage in some Christian churches.

My understanding of marriage in this extraordinarily elevated way came as I studied the Catholic Church, and then I realized why they held it in such high esteem. Marriage is vital in the plan of salvation, since a family is the first church - the domestic church - and has the power to grow God's kingdom through love, and I began to reflect more on the fact that Jesus' first miracle was at a wedding feast in Cana and that he referenced marriage celebrations often in his parables about the Kingdom of God.

A simple wedding Mass without flowers, ribbons, or bells holds more power and meaning than the most lavish civil ceremony in the most exotic location, because Christ is truly present and blesses it. The couple commits to far more than a shared life. They commit to a shared life in Christ for not only their mutual benefit but for the good of their children and of the community.

For a world that cannot accept Jesus, it is no wonder that marriage has lost its luster, its meaning. After all, in the words of Pontius Pilate, what is truth? Or in the perspective of this modern, brave world, what is sin anyway? What is grace? And who needs it? (Everyone!)

As for us poor, traditionalist Catholics? None of us come to marriage as saints! If that were a requirement, to be pure, none could get married in the Church. However, and I will talk about this Sacrament another time through the lens of my own experience, I have no doubt those couples were encouraged to go to Confession before the Mass. The marrying of those 20 couples was a removal of obstacles to grace. It was not an approval of disorder, confusion and selfishness. It was good. It was merciful.

It was a Sacrament, an efficacious sign of grace instituted by Christ Himself.
Catechism of the Catholic Church 1601 "The matrimonial covenant, by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life, is by its nature ordered toward the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring; this covenant between baptized persons has been raised by Christ the Lord to the dignity of a sacrament."

Thanks be to God!