For the record, Chris washed his hands before each evening consult. A big change from five years ago, when he was morally opposed to hand washing!
This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times on 14 January 2010.
Now which of these is easier: to say, “Your sins are forgiven,” or to say, “Get up and walk?” — Mt. 9:5
It happened so fast that at first I wasn’t even sure I was hurt. Chris and I were in the kitchen talking while I sliced rolls for sandwiches and he organized the rest of dinner. Suddenly the knife slipped. As I grabbed for a towel to put pressure on the wound, Chris sprang into action. He gathered the first aid supplies, washed and dried my hand, and when he was sure the bleeding had stopped, gently bandaged it for me. But his solicitude didn’t stop there. For the next several nights, Chris insisted on seeing my hand. He checked on the progress of the healing, and carefully re-bandaged it. I was touched by my son’s care, not just in the moment of the injury, but for my ongoing healing.
A few weeks later, as I was settling into the chair in my confessor’s office, my mind was on more metaphysical injuries. Reaching for his stole on the side table he asked, “Are things going better?” His words instantly brought Chris’ ongoing care for my physical wounds to mind. In his question I heard the Church’s concern not just for this one moment of sacramental forgiveness and reconciliation, but her care for us going forward — that we might be able to “get up and walk.”
In reflecting on this passage from Matthew’s Gospel, St. Jerome notes our very human need for physical signs that reflect and support the interior changes that the simple, but sometimes hard to comprehend, phrase “your sins are forgiven” signifies. I hear the words, “I absolve you from your sins, in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit” and have faith that at that moment I am forgiven.
Still, like the Pharisees who doubted whether Jesus could forgive sins, I, too, sometimes need a tangible sign to remind me that I am free of the sins that bound me — and that I will not be left to my own inadequate resources after sacramental absolution. My assigned penance often serves much as the bandage on my finger did, a sign to remind me to be mindful of my injury and an aid to its continued healing.
Pope John Paul II reminds us of these dual medicinal roles for the satisfaction, or penance, that sacramental confession imposes. He points out that penances should go beyond the mere recitation of formulas. Instead purposeful actions of worship, atonement, love and charity keep us aware “even after absolution there remains … a dark area, due to the wound of sin, to the imperfection of love in repentance, to the weakening of the spiritual faculties” (Reconciliatio et Paenitentia 31).
In the satisfaction required of her penitents, the Church offers us not magic words, nor even merely spiritual first-aid, but tangible signs of the new life we now live, and support in living it.
My hand has healed without even a scar, but the experience left its mark in other ways. Now each time I go to confession, I see in absolution and in penance the tender hand of God, gently cleaning my wounds and wrapping my still fragile soul round with His merciful care. I leave aware that not only are my sins forgiven, but that I can get up and walk as well.
I confess to almighty God, and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have sinned through my own fault in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done and what I have failed to do; and I ask blessed Mary, ever virgin, all the angels and saints, and you, my brothers and sisters, to pray for me to the Lord our God. Amen. — Confiteor