Now almost ten years ago I made the thirty day Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius Loyola. During this month I maintained complete silence apart from my daily meetings with my director. Each week of the thirty day Spiritual Exercises has a theme for the five hours that the retreatant is expected to spend meditating every day. The unifying theme of the first week is personal sin. After spending thirty-five hours over seven days meditating on all of the ways I had said no to God by sinning in my first twenty-five years, I felt about six inches tall. This deep awareness of my guilt before God was heightened by the fact that there was nothing to distract me when I was not praying from the guilt that I felt–no television, no radio, no conversations, no texting, nothing.
To close out the first week, the retreatant makes a general confession to his director of all of the sins that he has committed from the age of seven onwards. This practice has since become a somewhat regular part of my annual retreat.
Those who have worked a twelve-step program for recovery from addictive behavior will readily admit that two of the most difficult steps are 4 and 5, wherein one makes a searching and fearless moral inventory and then admits to God , oneself and to another human being the exact nature of one’s wrongs. This is much more than a laundry list of religious duties neglected and trivial peccadilloes. It is a brutally honest examination of the ways in which one has done real, lasting harm to others and to oneself.
General confessions and moral inventories will very often fill us fear. They fill us with fear because it is so easy for us to spend most of our time in an imaginary world in which our problems are everyone else’s fault and we are just innocent victims. They aren’t and we aren’t either. The real tragedy is that the fear that holds us back from making an honest examination of conscience also makes it impossible for us to receive God’s mercy. It is impossible to accept forgiveness for things that we stubbornly refuse to own as sins.
The Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ reminds us that when absolute goodness entered the world in the flesh, we murdered Him through our sins. In fallen human nature there is something of an allergy to goodness. When we see someone who seems better than ourselves, we want to see him brought down to our level. That is why the press spends so much time and energy trying to expose the dirty laundry of public figures. We like a good scandal. It makes us feel more secure in our own hypocrisies to expose the hypocrisy of others.
Attempts to dig up dirt on Jesus were bound to fail. But Our Lord’s moral purity did not stop His accusers from twisting His actions and words and dragging His name and reputation through the mud so much so that they were able to get an innocent man crucified. We can be certain that all of those directly involved in the Crucifixion had rationalizations for their roles. We also can be very good about convincing ourselves that good is evil and evil is good in our own life when it suits our purposes and preserves our false self.
Brothers and sisters, let us be honest about our sins on this Good Friday. All of us here have chosen at some point in our lives to turn our backs on God. Fear of having low self-esteem should not deter us from honesty. We have done wrong. We have been forgetful of God. We have harmed others. We have not loved ourselves enough to stop inflicting needless pain on ourselves through self-destructive behaviors.
We probably have some sinful habits. We eat or drink more than we should. We try to control others through our anger. We focus too much on money and possessions. We burn with envy for what others have that we want. We give in to lust. We are too lazy to try to change for the better. We think the world should revolve around us and our wants.
Here is the good news this Good Friday, God does not stop loving us with a unique, personal and unrepeatable love after we have done all of these evil things. It almost seems like He loves us more precisely when we fall into sin. Where sins abounds, forgiveness abounds even more. There is the catch, however. We cannot receive God’s forgiveness when we are living in the false self. Too the extent that we deny that we are sinners, our sins remain.
Why? Precisely because God loves us as sinners, we cannot receive His love and mercy when we deceive ourselves about the true nature and extent of our sins. None of us here lives at the address of a sinless person. Yet so often in our prayers we come before God and ask Him send to us His love and mercy at that address. We should not be surprised when our prayers seem to go unanswered.
We come before Jesus today confessing ourselves as sinners. Hopefully we can do so without fear of rejection or self-preserving rationalization. Then, and only then, we will be able to receive the great gift of mercy that God sends us every day. And it is the gift of this mercy that changes us so that we can rest more in God’s love, commit fewer sins and are more merciful towards those who have offended us.