by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann
How sad are the recent revelations of Tiger Woods’ marital infidelity.
It seems like hardly a week goes by that we are not confronted with a scandal involving a political leader or some other celebrity. In recent years, within our church, we have suffered through the clergy sexual abuse scandal.
It is discouraging and dispiriting to be exposed to a steady diet of the flaws and failures of public figures. It is also frightening — both because it makes us question in whom we can place our trust and because it makes us aware of our own frailty and vulnerability. However, one positive effect of witnessing the prevalence of human failure is that it makes clear our need for a savior. We need a redeemer.
During Advent, we recall how the Jewish people had waited a very long time for the Messiah, the Christ. Sadly, most of them, did not recognize Jesus as the long-awaited one. They failed to understand who Jesus was because he did not conform to what they had come to expect of the Messiah.
Jesus did not come with military might nor did he usher in an era of economic prosperity for Israel. The fact that he was born in such humble circumstances to parents who possessed none of the expected credentials for siring the Christ disqualified Jesus, in the minds of most, from consideration as the Messiah.
We should not be too quick to criticize those who failed to recognize Jesus 2000 years ago, because even with the benefit of two millennia of Christian history, most of the world still does not recognize Jesus as Lord and Savior. Many in our world, even many baptized Catholics, feel no need for a savior. If we have no room in our life for a redeemer, then we will not be capable of accepting Jesus for who he is.
There are many who would like to domesticate Jesus. They have no problem accepting him as an important historical figure or perhaps a great philosopher or even someone to be admired for the nobility of his life. Our secular culture does not object to Jesus being considered a great thinker in a pantheon of great thinkers in human history.
However, what secularists are not willing to accept is Jesus’ own selfunderstanding of his identity. They will not tolerate the claim of Jesus to be the beloved and only-begotten Son of God who can place truth claims not only on those who choose to believe in him, but upon all of humanity. In reality, it is not possible to accept Jesus simply as a great man. He is either who he claims to be or he is crazy.
To accept Jesus for whom he claims to be means that we must also accept ourselves as sinners who are in need of a redeemer. Without an acknowledgment of our own sinfulness, we can never understand, much less believe in, Jesus as a savior.
During the Advent season, in our liturgical readings, the church presents us with John the Baptist, who prepared the way for Jesus. How did John prepare the way for Jesus? John disposed many to be open to Jesus by making them aware of their own sinfulness and their need for God’s mercy.
Jesus did not come into the world to proclaim an ideal that his disciples with self-determination and discipline could muster the strength to live. Jesus came to bring forgiveness to flawed men and women who would admit their sins and accept God’s mercy. Beginning with Peter and the other eleven apostles, the church is, by its nature, a community of recovering sinners, who accept the mercy that the baby born in Bethlehem was sent to bring to humanity.
Early in our childhood, usually in violating the loving and protective limits provided by our parents, we experienced what St. Paul describes in his Letter to the Romans as a powerful attraction, resulting from the effects of original sin, not to do what we know to be right and good.
Jesus came to liberate us from our fractured humanity — not by giving us a self-help book, but by unleashing God’s mercy on Calvary, which has the power to transform our hearts of stone into hearts of love. This is why the single most important action that we can do to prepare to celebrate Christmas is to receive the sacrament of penance.
Approaching Jesus by making a sacramental confession is the most beautiful and powerful profession of faith in Jesus as redeemer and savior. Uniquely in this sacrament, we admit our sinfulness, but, even more importantly, we express our faith in the mercy of God. One of my greatest hopes for the Archdiocese is to reawaken an appreciation and love for the sacrament of reconciliation. I am convinced that the regular use of the sacrament of penance is the key to our personal growth in holiness as well as to the renewal of the entire church.
Recently, I heard Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, on his weekly radio program, speak about our cultural addiction to unhealthy confession, baring our souls on “Jerry Springer” or “Oprah” or some other reality television show. Either for financial pay or for a moment in the media spotlight, many are willing to confess the most outrageous behavior, feeding the insatiable voyeurism of the viewing public.
Jesus does not ask us to make a public confession for the entire world to hear. Instead, he invites us to surrender our sins to him, in the sacred and private environment of the confessional, satisfying our human need to speak aloud our sin as well as providing us the opportunity to hear his words of forgiveness spoken by those he has deputed to be human instruments of ministering his merciful and healing love.
Make a good, sincere sacramental confession this Advent and you will have made the best possible preparation for the true celebration of Christmas — the anniversary of the birth of the Christ — our redeemer and our savior.