Advent is upon us once again. It is my most favorite season as the build-up to Christmas is always so beautiful and joyful. The songs, the decorations, the food, and the general joy that is manifest during Advent truly makes this season, as the song says, “the most wonderful time of the year.”
As a Catholic convert, Advent is an even more beautiful season than it was before my conversion. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains the joy and beauty of the season quite well: “When the Church celebrates the liturgy of Advent each year, she makes present this ancient expectancy of the Messiah, for by sharing in the long preparation for the savior’s first coming, the faithful renew their ardent desire for his second coming. By celebrating the precursor’s [St. John the Baptist] birth and martyrdom, the Church unites herself to his desire: ‘He must increase, but I must decrease.'”
Advent then, is so much more than awaiting the coming of our Lord. It is an opportunity for us to decrease in our own lives, to allow Christ to increase there. Decreasing in our lives requires a detachment from our worldly pursuits, most especially those that are evil in the eyes of God. It requires focusing on our Lord, and desiring him more than anything this world–with all of its glittering lights, ringing bells, delicious foods, and bright paper packages–could offer us.
No, Advent is not a truly penitent season. Unlike Lent, we do not normally fast and mourn. In fact it is often a time to feast in celebration of the coming of our Savior. But as we renew our desire for our Lord’s second coming, we must realize that judgment will accompany him. If we are to decrease so that he may increase, and give our lives to him, casting our crowns at his feet, we must recognize all of the ways that we have failed him, and repent of them. Before Christ can increase in our lives, we must reconcile to him. And that, of course, means going to confession.
The thought of going to confession is not something that normally conjures feelings of joy in the minds of most Catholics. It’s often looked upon as drudgery at best, if not downright painful. Advent is supposed to be beautiful and joyful. Isn’t confession best left to the Lenten season of mourning and penance? After all, that’s when Jesus died for our sins.
Yes, Christ died for our sins on Good Friday, but it was on Christmas that he came into the world to reconcile us to him. And it is that reconciliation that offers us the most beauty and joy than can exist in our fallen world. Without reconciliation to God our world is doomed to sin and death, but it is the ability to reconcile with God through Christ that offers us the beauty and joy of eternal life with him.
And it is because of that reconciliation that I have found confession to be one of the most beautiful and joyful things I am blessed to do as a Catholic. I’ll admit that confessing my sins to a priest was something I was not looking forward to when I joined the Catholic Church. I was in my forties and therefore had quite a long list of sins to confess. And that was just the mortal sins. There were times leading up to my first confession that I felt sick to my stomach thinking about having to confess to a man these disgustingly wicked things I had done. And I didn’t really understand why I had to. After all, as a Protestant I had already confessed them to God.
But I took my first confession very seriously, and carefully reflected on my evil past, writing down the sins that I had committed so that I would not forget any (I promptly burned the paper in our fire pit out back upon my return from confession). I was trembling slightly as I made my way from the parking lot up to the church to meet the priest. I was so nervous and ashamed that I wanted to sink into the ground–to hide my filthiness with the rest of the dirt.
But then, during confession, something unexpected happened. As I read off my list of sins, the shame, instead of growing heavier as I had expected, began to dissipate. My voice cracked and tears rolled down my face as I read off each sin. I felt awful for the things I had done, for how I had failed God, hurt others, and been such a wicked person, but at the same time, I felt relief. My tears of sadness were mixed with tears of joy as the great weight of my sins lifted from my shoulders. And when the priest prayed over me absolving me of my sins I felt as if I could float up into the sky. It was one of the most beautiful and joyful moments of my life. I felt a release from the bondage of those sins unlike I had ever felt by simply confessing them in private to God. For the first time, I felt truly certain that my sins had been forgiven and that I was reconciled to God.
That is what Christ came to do. He came to this world on Christmas to bring the joy of reconciliation. We are not joyful simply because God came to earth in the flesh, but because he did so to reconcile us to him, to lift the terrible burden of our evil and selfish ways, and cast a light on all of the darkness of this world.
The Sacrament of Reconciliation is a wonderful gift that our Lord has given to us, but I am afraid that too many do not appreciate just how beautiful and joyful it is. As we renew our ardent desire for Christ’s return this Advent, let us also partake in the sacrament, so that we can truly reconcile ourselves to God.