Douglas P. McManaman
Third Sunday in Ordinary Time
January 21, 2018
Reproduced with Permission

The very first command that comes out of Jesus' mouth is: "Repent, and believe in the gospel". These are the words we say when distributing ashes on Ash Wednesday. But why should we repent? The reason is that the kingdom of God is at hand, and repentance is the only way to prepare for the coming of that kingdom.

Repent means to change your life around; it implies a change of heart. In short, it means to turn away from sin. In the early Church, it was very clearly taught that there are certain behaviors that are incompatible with existence in the Person of Christ, incompatible with existence in that kingdom; these included things like fornication (or having sex with someone you are not married to), it included infanticide, adultery, perjury, and a host of other behaviors. And of course this made Christians a very unpopular lot with the Roman Empire. And things have not changed; for anyone who preaches against such behaviors can expect an earful. Unfortunately, such preaching has been lacking within the past 40 years, at least for the most part. I was telling my students that the other day; for if you recall last week's readings, in particular, the Second Reading in which Paul talks about fornication, I'm always curious to see if the priest will say anything about that, because since my return to the Church back in 1979, priests have typically avoided the difficult points and topics having to do with personal morality, especially sexual morality. But my priest friend from Orangeville, Father Luis, a young good looking Filipino - at least according to my young Filipino students - -sent me his homily and asked me what I thought. I thought he'd likely end up in the hospital; he unpacked that Second Reading like no one I've ever heard before. And interestingly enough, our young associate spoke of many of the issues surrounding sexual morality, including pornography, which has become a serious addiction among many adult males, ruining marriages and families in the process. And my students informed me that their parish priest too spoke of sexual matters. That some people have gone 20-25 years without hearing the word sin mentioned from the pulpit might become a thing of the past.

And it is good if that this is the case, because the very first mitzvah out of Jesus' mouth was "repent"; he came to establish the kingdom of God by dying, by the shedding of his blood. The new covenant that he establishes is sealed in his blood, and he gives us his blood to drink, and when we eat and drink, according to Jewish theology, we enter into communion with those we eat and drink with. Christ gives us himself in the Eucharist, precisely in order to dwell within us. He said in the gospel of Luke, the kingdom of God is within you. And so, just as we would naturally clean a dirty glass if we want it to hold good wine, Jesus is telling us that we have to clean our interior so that it can contain his blood, his very self. And so preaching repentance is a very loving thing to do, even though some people continue to see this as unloving, offensive, and uninviting. But Jesus won't dwell in a dirty cup. And so if we want to live, drunk on the new wine of the gospel, to live in a spirit of great interior joy, we have to do the difficult work of repentance; we have to confess our sins.

The other day I visited a patient in the hospital, a relatively young man, who struggles with despair, and he despairs about his past. But this is precisely what Christ came to free us from, to free us from this leash that binds us to the past. We don't have to despair. He is God; he forgives sin; he frees us from the slavery of guilt, and slavery to the past.

My spiritual director told me that one day, when he was a priest in Brooklyn, New York, he got a call from a Jewish psychologist. She said, you know Father, recently I sent you one of my patients, and I've done that a number of times over the years. Sometimes we get someone that we just can't seem to help, and since they are Catholic, I will send them to you. But every time they meet with you, just once, they're so much better, you help them in ways that we can't. I want to know: what's your secret? He laughed, and said I have no secret. I just hear their confession. And this Jewish woman said to him: "There's something about that Confession thing you do that's good. Don't ever lose that." Confession is repentance, preparing the heart to receive the Kingdom of God, which is at hand, and we receive it interiorly. The new law, says the prophet Jeremiah, will be written on the heart, not on stone. Stones exist outside the body, the heart is within, and the only way the kingdom of God can dwell within the heart is through the purification of Confession.

It's like going to the doctor. If we never went to the doctor, they'd never discover how sick we are and would not be able to treat us. This reminds me of my own doctor. Back in 2003 I went to see him for my yearly checkup. He did the blood work, and my blood came back as low hemoglobin, and he was taught in medical school that if there is low hemoglobin, assume cancer. He told me to eat more red meat for a month, which I was delighted to do, but the following month, my iron was even lower, so he sent me for a colonoscopy and upper endoscopy. The specialist he sent me too, however, was very laid back. He said: I think your doctor is over reacting. You're 41 years old. You probably have celiac disease. We'll do a test, and you just go off and enjoy your summer. He had a very positive attitude that made me feel great. I went off to enjoy the summer; but at the end of the summer, he called and said the test came back negative, so we'll do the colonoscopy and upper endoscopy. As I was on the operating table, he actually said: I still think your doctor is overreacting, but we'll do this to make him happy. Well, at the end, it looked like he'd seen a ghost. He said: we found a tumor on your large intestine.

It was removed two weeks later followed by six months of chemo, but what struck me was his attitude. This is a good analogy that illustrates what has been happening in the Church, to a significant extent, for the past 40--50 years: negative attitude vs positive attitude. It was the positive attitude of the specialist who allowed the cancer to spread within me for an extra two months. He was positive, overconfident, eager to please, but he was wrong. My family doctor, on the other hand, gave me distressing news, had a rather negative or pessimistic attitude about the facts in evidence, was indifferent to whether or not I was pleased with the prospect, and it was that attitude which saved me. I went right out to the liquor store and bought him a bottle of champagne and brought it to his office.

Without the regular reception of the sacrament of confession, we are just living an exterior religious life. There's simply no way we can live every day without committing venial sins, which very slowly and gradually tarnish the interior of the soul. In the depths of that interior is a mirror that reflects the divine light to our unconscious mind, and we begin to see ourselves in that mirror. We begin to know ourselves, and we begin to know from within, not just in the mind, but in the heart which is that mirror, that we are loved and forgiven; we see ourselves from God's point of view, not from our point of view or the point of view of our parents, or the world. And we begin to experience hope and freedom. We begin to experience joy, which is something every different from pleasure or excitement. In other words, we come to life.