The Lamb in the Confessional.
Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world. – John 1:29
Human beings are startlingly conscious of sin and guilt. At a certain age, children begin to express sorrow after committing wrongs. They learn to say “I’m sorry.” Every culture has a system of taboos and social norms. Murder, stealing and lying are universally acknowledged as evil things to do. Every culture in history has also practiced sacrifice. In every time and place, men built altars. The sacrificial victim differed but the concept remained the same: we have sinned against our god/gods and must make it up by offering something back. Despite the modern world’s denial of sin and guilt, simple observation says the opposite. Human hearts yearn to acknowledge sins and have them expiated.
God, knowing the blood sacrifices of the Old Covenant could never pay the full satisfaction for sins, sent his only Son, Jesus Christ into the world. There, he would make the One Sacrifice, that of his own self, on the altar of the cross. The religion of Christianity thus understood that by the blood of Christ, sins were remitted. Central to the sin offering was the blood of the animal, which was conceived as a cleansing agent and was manipulated by the priest in various ways, splashed, sprinkled, smeared. The rite conferred forgiveness of sins (Hahn, pg. 793.) It is no coincidence that Jesus would thus be killed by a cruel, bloody crucifixion and be hailed as the “Lamb of God”.
By virtue of Christ’s victimhood, his apostles also became lambs. In their relentless service to souls, they lived a continual victimhood, exposed to persecution and danger. Modern-day priests do the same. While not threatened anymore by the sword, they face derision, hatred, discrimination and scorn. They face a post-enlightenment culture that wants nothing better than for sin and priests to no longer exist. To combat this self-serving age, the priest not only preaches. He does what Christ did millennia ago, offers the forgiveness of sins.
This is what happens in the sacrament of confession. The priest becomes a sign and instrument of God’s merciful love for the sinner (CCC 1465). He behaves as a conduit for the power of the Holy Spirit, breathed into him by Christ (cf. Jn 20:22). Thus, he personally addresses each sinner, as Christ speaks through him, “I absolve you.” In the confessional, the once fierce lion becomes a lamb, quiet, meek, listening, heart open, spirit inclined with love for the sinner. A lamb, he takes upon himself the sins of his people and pronounces them clean by the blood of Christ.
While administering the sacrament of confession, the priest usually wears a scarf-like garment called a stole. A symbol of priestly authority, the stole oddly resembles a yoke. The cloth fits over the shoulders and it is often heavy. While wearing the stole, a priest is reminded of sin’s great weight. He remembers that without Christ, all would be doomed, for the wages of sin is death. (Rom 6:23). So the priest knows God’s profound mercy in spite of humanity’s profound sins. He remains in the confessional, even for long hours so men may come to the lamb behind the Lamb. The joy of his heart is the salvation of souls. The joy of his heart is to say: “I absolve you.”
It is the lamb-like meekness of the priest that will draw sinners to him. His patience, compassion, and long suffering behind that screen show the face of Christ. When he is most like a lamb, he is most like a shepherd. He doesn’t hear our sins to oppress or burden us but rather, to fee us just as the physician administers bitter medicine for healing. The sacrament of confession has long been known as a sacrament of healing. It speaks to the need of every human heart. All can come and all can be forgiven. I leave with these poignant words from Pope Saint John Paul II:
People need to come out of anonymity and fear. They need to be known and called by name, to walk in safety along the paths of life, to be found again if they become lost, to be loved, to receive salvation as the supreme gift of God’s love. All this is done by Jesus, the God Shepherd- by himself and by his priests with him (Pastores Dabo Vobis 82).
To be continued in: The Martyred Lamb.