Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Low Sunday: 2016

My Lord and My God.

Someone remarked to me during Holy Week that I must have heard plenty confessions since Fr. Duncan and I preached about confession more than once during Lent. Actually no.  I probably heard more confessions than in most Anglican parishes—we have fifty years or so of solid teaching about confession in this parish, honored more in the breach than the observance -- but I did not hear nearly enough confessions. I mention this neither to complain nor to scold, but because I am afraid you are going to hear another sermon of the Sacrament of Penance. It is not my idea; it is the Gospel’s idea.

The Risen Lord,  after he had got the preliminaries out of the way: go tell everyone else that I am risen, answered the question ‘what now?” “What now” is that the apostles are given the great absolution for the world’s sins, which Jesus bore on the Cross.  Not too surprising given that they had not exactly behaved themselves during the passion and death of Jesus. But there is more to it than that. Easter is the feast in which the Church is given the authority to forgive every repented sin.

The first Sunday after Easter, the octave of Easter has been given many names: ‘Low Sunday’, not because there are fewer people at Mass, alas true enough, but because the Mass is somewhat simpler than Easter Sunday;  Dominica in albis, ‘the Sunday in white robes’ because those who had been baptized at the Vigil were still wearing their baptismal clothes; Quasi modo, like the character in Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame, who was born on this Sunday, when the Introit of the Mass began Quasi modo: like newborn infants, long for pure spiritual milk so that through it you may grow into salvation. More recently this Sunday has been called Divine Mercy Sunday from a devotion given to the Polish nun, St. Faustina, and spread by a Polish Pope, St. John-Paul II.

The apostles were the first recipients of this Divine Mercy and they became like newborn babies.  Consider what they were like before Jesus was in their midst: the doors being shut where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews. The first consequence of sin is fear, not as some might think fear of God’s wrath, but fear of ourselves, fear of what we are capable of, fear of what others think about us and what they might do to us and maybe even fear of fear. If you are not afraid of something, then you are drunk or foolish or maybe both.

Jesus says three things in the face of fear: “Peace be with you . . . As the Father has sent me so I send you . . . Receive the Holy Spirit.”

Peace be with you. Every confession is an unconditional surrender on our part. The war is aptly described by St. Paul: I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. The confessional is not a court of law in which we are found guilty; long before we come to the priest we should have confessed to ourselves the crime. Otherwise what is the point of coming? The job for the priest is to convey to you the Peace of Christ, which passeth all understanding.

As the Father has sent me so I send you. When we confess our sins, we are not just taking out the garbage, we are taking once again the vocation which God has given us. The priest may not know precisely what that vocation is and the penitent himself may not know. As Blessed John Henry Newman prayed his famous prayer: God has created me to do Him some definite service. He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission. I may never know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. But what that vocation involves is pretty clear: take up the cross and follow Jesus, the very cross which the apostles had shunned, the very cross which we are prone to shun. But it is not a cross we carry by ourselves, Jesus is our Simon of Cyrene.

Receive the Holy Spirit. St. Jerome says the each confession is a ‘new Pentecost’ – a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit. It would not do us much good if all that happens is our sins were taken away until we sin again and nothing was given to us in return. The gifts of the Holy Spirit are poured out upon us: wisdom, understanding and knowledge, counsel (right judgment) fortitude, fear of the Lord. Once our hands and hearts are empty, then God can fill them with his grace.

All this I think gets overshadowed in the Gospel by so-called doubting Thomas, the guy who missed Mass last week. But the story of Thomas follows naturally from what comes before. The word ‘confession’ in Latin means two things, not one: to tell one’s sin and to praise God. We should notice the way Jesus responds to Thomas and his doubts. His doubts are not dismissed and there is no reproach from Jesus for his demand for physical proof. First, Jesus once again says ‘Peace with you’ only this time to Thomas as well. Curiously enough the text does not tell that us Thomas actually touched Jesus, despite the way Christian art subsequently presented the scene. But whatever happened, Thomas ‘confessed’ Jesus “My Lord and my God”.

When we confess our sins, we also confess our faith. The Sacrament of Penance is a Sacrament of Praise and Adoration, the lack of which is one of the sins most confessed.  What other response is possible, when the peace of Christ is given, when we receive the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life, and our vocation renewed: My Lord and My God.

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