During this Lenten season it is a good practice to go to confession. However, we now like to call this Sacrament “reconciliation.” Is this just a fad thing and so we have a new name? Not really. There is a theological reason behind changing the name for this Sacrament from “confession” to “reconciliation.” It has to do with who is the primary actor in the Sacrament. You see, we confess our sins. So calling it confession puts the emphasis on what we do. However, it is God who reconciles us to Himself through His Son, Jesus Christ. Calling the Sacrament “reconciliation” therefore puts the emphasis on what God does. And that is, frankly, the most important part of the Sacrament.
On Sunday, April 22, Bishop Joe Vasquez is scheduled to be here to celebrate Confirmation with our teenagers, most of whom are sophomores in high school. I interview each of them individually, and begin by asking them what Confirmation is all about. Invariably they tell me that they are confirming the faith that was chosen for them as infants at their Baptism. It is a common understanding, but that is wrong.
We do, of course, want them to confirm the faith in which they have been raised, but the Sacrament of Confirmation is something they get, something they receive, NOT something they do. God is confirming, or guaranteeing, God’s choice of them. Bishop Joe will anoint the confirmation candidate with olive oil and say “Be sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit.” It is something they receive, not something they do. They get the Holy Spirit, not give it. Again, the sacrament is more about what God does than what we do.
In each of the sacraments it is God who is the primary actor. It is not what we do that is most important. Of course, our cooperation with God’s grace is important, and we must strive to put into practice the grace we receive. But grace is always free and always a gift. That means we do not earn it. We do not have a just claim in it. We do not receive it by rights. It is always a gift.
The heresy that we can somehow earn grace or salvation is called Pelagianism. I think it is easy for us who value hard workers, self-starters, achievers, independent people who don’t rely on others, to slip unconsciously into a sort of semi-Pelagianism that mistakenly believes we can and should “earn” our way into heaven. But we can’t do that. Grace is always free. As St Paul tell us, all we have and all we become is gift.
So, as you celebrate the sacraments this Lent, and at any time, remember that the major player is God. We receive God’s gifts, not earned, free and undeserved. Our proper response therefore is gratitude. It is all gift. Blessed Lent!