John 11:1-45, Fifth Sunday of Lent
Let me start with a confession – about my own experiences of coming to confession before I became a priest. As a teenager, I used to be terrified of coming to confession, and really embarrassed to tell all my sins. Naturally, I don’t think any of us are comfortable exposing parts of us that seem rotten, that may have already developed a stench, and that we would rather just keep hidden in dark, covered up parts of our soul. I guess it was also the fear of being judged, especially by priests who knew me and my family, and the fear of them remembering my sins when they see me outside of the confessional.
Slowly therefore, I became more and more skilled at the art of masking the foulness of things I had done. At confession, this was the art of sugarcoating my sins. Of course there was the old insert-the-serious-sins-between-the-venial-sins technique, which I used to think was ingenious of me to conceive on my own. I would later learn from our moral theology teacher, that this was something most everybody tries to do at confession, in the hopes that the confessor wouldn’t hear what was said almost in passing.
And then there was the “detailed explanation technique”, as if narrating more fully the context of my sin, and that I really didn’t want to do what I had done would make light of the fault. The better I got at this, the more I believed that I was less culpable for what I had done.
And finally there was the “I don’t think it’s really a sin anyway, so no need to tell the priest” line of reasoning. This did away with having to sugarcoat the fault, altogether, and made things so much easier.
It was only after being trained in moral theology and ad audiendas confessiones when I realized that if you come to a good confessor, none of the above is necessary. None of the sugarcoating or keeping things in the dark is necessary, because a good confessor is one who takes to heart the task of showing the penitent God’s merciful love. By the light of that mercy, he will gently point and prod that person back onto the path towards the light. The more no-holds-barred truthful I am, without leaving anything in the dark, the more this light can fill me.
After learning this, I was able to look back and see that indeed, it was in the times when I was just outright honest and able to tell-all in my confessions, that I had felt freer afterwards. A good confession felt like windows had been opened inside of me, allowing wind and light to cleanse air gone putrid.
I also realize this happens not only in the sacrament of reconciliation, but also when I find a trustworthy friend and confidante, to whom I can tell-all about something bothering me, without feeling judged. Usually, such a friend would dare not simply say “it’s ok”, because it usually really isn’t. But then he would also be able to say “it’s going to be ok” because he knows how to let me trust in God’s love.
“I will open your graves and have you rise from them” promises the Lord in the first reading. “Come out of that stench and come out of that cave!” Jesus commands the dead parts of us, as he commanded Lazarus in the Gospel.
The Lord does so because God knows that we will always have the tendency to keep things in closets, to hide parts of ourselves that we would rather see dead in caves, to bury sins in sealed graves.
Good confessors and good friends make us feel safe enough to break-open our graves, to roll away the stone, and to be unafraid of the stench. They do so because they know that love has to be let in. In today’s readings, this love goes by its other names. It is the “Spirit of God by which we have life” in the first and second readings. It is Jesus’ very word, the words that enter the cave in the Gospel. “Lazarus, come out!”
Yes, friends, today we are reminded that love bids us forward. “Come out of that cave!” Love compels us to leave the darkness and stench of our hiding and dying places, and to trust that the light will not burn us, but rather will forgive us and bless us with life anew.
It’s the fifth Sunday of Lent. If you haven’t yet gone for a good confession lately, today might be a good day to do so, that love may bid you forward anew. It’s going to be ok.