Every year, in a small village in Corsica, there is a reenactment of the events of Good Friday. Since the Middle Ages, this event has drawn crowds of locals and tourists who come to witness what has been called one of the most brutal Easter week processions. Recreating the Passion of Christ occurs in various European villages since ancient times, but this particular one is different because the role of Jesus is played by someone local, who wears a red mask as he carries the heavy cross barefoot for the duration of the route.
The identity of this man is known only to the local priest, but it is clearly a man who feels he needs to atone for his sins by taking on this role. So popular is the part that it is booked solid for the next forty years by applicants from as far away as Madagascar. The list includes gamblers, adulterers, ex-convicts, all of them seeking peace of mind.
Now before you all hurry home to your computers to figure out how to sign up for this event, we need to admit something we all have in common, namely, that many of us carry a heavy burden of guilt from some of the choices we have made in the past. Some of us are willing to go to extremes to release it. Since the earliest days of the Christian community, the consensus has been that in order to become a better human being, a person needs to be conscious of those things he or she has done that has hurt others. This is why we begin almost every Mass with a confession that we have failed to keep our actions in harmony with our words.
In the early days, penitents were given strict penances: 40 days fasting for example, or weeks spent without talking to anyone.l Since this was difficult to do at home, the churches set up room inside the churches for this purpose. Initially called “penitentiaries” they evolved into the modern day confessional. Unfortunately, this term also came to be used as a synonym for “prison”, so it is no wonder that for some the idea of doing penance is equated with punishment.
This is not the message of Jesus, however. From the very beginning of his ministry, Jesus insists that he brings “good news” of God’s love, not “bad news” of God’s anger and impending punishment. His word is simple: “Repent!” In its original context, the word is pregnant with healing possibility.
Repentance, then, requires first of all our collective involvement in the human predicament. We can all admit that the world is a flawed place inhabited by flawed people, but it’s easier to see these flaws as somehow unrelated to ourselves.
When we realize that we are included in the problems that affect our world, that our spending habits and voting choices and everyday actions affect the whole situation, we become more open to the possibility of healing. A former friend of mine who ran a residence for AIDS patients, discovered that one of the clients was using illegal drugs and, following house rules, evicted him from the house. The man was found in a dumpster a few weeks later, dead of an overdose. There are people I know who are trying to raise their own grandchildren because their own children are unfit parents, and the older I get, the more of my friends and acquaintances are getting into rehab for alcoholism and drug addiction. Just this past year, a brother in Christ, a minister with a powerful ministry to the mentally disabled in this comomunity, was convicted of stealing the trust funds of the mentally disadvantaged in his care, and he has no way to repay the victims or their families. He contacted me recently, asking me for a recommendation for a job he was seeking. I was in a quandary for a long time before deciding whether or not to assist him. All of us have to make similar, difficult and complicated decisions, and we do the best we can under the circumstances. Sometimes it turns out our decisions were the right ones, sometimes not. That’s when we all need to hear and trust in God’s promise of forgiveness.
In the Catholic tradition, we have sacramental confession available to us, though for many that, too, is problematic. I understand the reluctance to go to confession because, like some of you, I, too, have encountered harsh priests and unhealthy advice in the confessional. As a priest, I would have to say that I have heard approximately twice as many non-Catholic confessions as Catholic ones—because Protestants and non-Christians don’t have the negative baggage related to confession.
However we choose to “repent”, we know that we can’t move forward until we do it. The problem is a spiritual one, not a physical one: It’s not with our hands that hit and steal; it is not with our feet that take us away from those we could minister to; it is not only with our mouths that lie and say hurtful things. The trouble lies in our inmost hearts because it’s the heart that harbors thoughts and fears and ideas that do not serve our highest good. So, in order to see change in our life, we have to change the inside.
In the past, God was presented to us as a big bully: He wanted to love us and be loved in return. But if we failed to love him in return, he would send us to burn in everlasting torment—to prove how much he loved us??? For some of us, the “love” part of this God was hidden behind his desire to punish…and there are still some people who live this way, focusing on outward conformity while ignoring true inner repentance.
A few years ago, my oldest son, who was constantly testing the rules and getting in trouble, was not particularly liked by some members of my parish. Several of them thought I needed to kick him out of the house, wondering why I put up with him. “If he were my son, I’d kick him out and make him finish high school on his own.” “So would I,” I replied one time, “if he were your son. But he isn’t yours, he’s mine. That’s why I try to keep him, to try to reason with him, to try to love him–because he’s mine.”
This is how God deals with us: not by threatening us with hell, not by kicking us out of the household of love. The door is always open to us because God is hoping that we’ll get some wisdom, come to our senses and return to him in repentance. This can never happen if we act out of fear; it can only happen if we have surrendered to God’s love.
After we change our heart, then we can finally change our conduct. We all know people who we’ve forgiven repeatedly, but they keep on hurting us in the same way over and over. Changing the heart manifests as a change in conduct. If we just say we’re sorry but give no evidence of what our heart has experienced, it’s pretty much meaningless.
Over a period of twenty years a carpenter had been taking items home from various worksites every day–a box of nails, a few feet of lumber, cans of paint, a spool of wire, sheets of drywall, whatever he could get away with. One day he surveyed his vast collection of stolen goods and felt guilty enough to go to confession. In the confessional, he enumerated the long list of things he had taken, and the priest, becoming increasingly concerned, said, “At first I was going to give you some Our Fathers and Hail Marys, but this really is serious. I think you’re going to have to make a novena to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. You do know how to make a Novena, don’t you?” “No, Father,” the man replied, “but if you’ve got the plans, I know where I can get the materials to make you one.”
That is the essence of Jesus’ message to us. In our lives we may be moving along on a path that eventually becomes dissatisfying, perhaps because we’ve walked the path longer than God intended. Sometimes we talk ourselves into walking a particular path, thinking we can redeem someone or be the messiah in a given situation. Later, we burn out and feel spiritually empty because, it turns out, we’re not the messiah, and we never needed to “redeem” anyone. The Redeemer has already come.
Jesus calls us to repent, to a change of mind, a change of heart, a change of direction. For some of us the change will be quite radical; for others it will be modest; but for all of us it involves a change of heart, a new direction, a different way of doing things, a better way of moving forward.