Pentecost, The Holy Spirit, and Confession
“Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
A true story told by writer Auburn Sandstrom at The Moth, the acclaimed organization dedicated to the art and craft of storytelling:
In 1992, Auburn was 29, the mother of a three-year-old son, trapped in an abusive marriage — and a drug addict. One night she hit bottom. She was curled up on a filthy carpet in a cluttered apartment, in horrible withdrawal from a drug she had been addicted to for several years. In her hand was a little piece of paper. For hours, she kept folding and crumbling it. It was the phone number for a Christian counsellor her mother had given her in one of their rare moments of contact. Finally, the desperate young mother punched the numbers on her phone. It rang. A man answered.
“Hi, I got this number from my mother. Uh, do you think you could talk to me?,” pleaded Auburn.
Auburn heard some shuffling at the other end of the line. A little radio in the background was snapped off and the man who answered became very present. “Yes, yes, yes. What’s going on?”
For the first time, Auburn poured out her story. She told him that she wasn’t feeling good, that things had gotten pretty bad in her marriage, that she had a drug problem, and that she was real scared.
The man at the other end of the line didn’t judge. He just sat with her and listened. Auburn was encouraged by his kindness and gentleness.
It was two in the morning. And the man stayed up the whole night with Auburn, just talking, listening and being there until the sun rose. By daybreak, she had calmed down. The raw panic had passed. She was feeling okay.
She was grateful to him. Auburn remembers, telling him, “Hey, you know, I really appreciate you and what you’ve done for me tonight. Aren’t you supposed to be telling me to read some Bible verses or something? Because that’d be cool, I’ll do it, you know. It’s all right.”
He laughed and said, “Well, I’m just glad this was helpful to you.”
But Auburn retorted, “No, really. You’re very good at this. I mean, you’ve seriously done a big thing for me. How long have you been a Christian counselor?”
There was a long pause at the other end of the line. The man then said kind of awkwardly, “Auburn, please don’t hang up. I’ve been trying not to bring this up.“
“What?” she responded.
“You won’t hang up, will you?” he implored.
“No, I won’t,” she responded nervously.
“I’m so afraid to tell you this. But the number you called …” He paused again. “You got the wrong number.”
Auburn didn’t hang up. They talked a little longer. Auburn never got his name or called him back.
Auburn Sandstrom survived that night. She’s now a successful writer and teacher; she raised her little boy, alone, to become a magnificent young athlete and scholar who graduated from Princeton. She concludes her story of that night:
(quote) “… the next day I felt this kind of joy, like I was shining. I think I’ve heard them call it ‘the peace that exceeds understanding.’ I had gotten to see that there was this completely random love in the universe. That it could be unconditional. And that some of it was for me … In the deepest, blackest night of despair, if you can get just one pinhole of light… all of grace rushes in.” (endquote)
Today, the Church celebrates the Solemnity of Pentecost. And we hear from St. John’s gospel Jesus breathing on the Apostles, telling them to receive the Holy Spirit and to forgive sins. The Church has always understood — and has in fact defined — that Jesus Christ here conferred on the Apostles authority to forgive sins, a power which is exercised in the sacrament of Confession. The Council of Trent formally and officially defined what the Church has always believed from the beginning; “The Lord then especially instituted the sacrament of Penance when, after being risen from the dead, he breathed upon His disciples and said: ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. . . .’. The consensus of all the Fathers has always acknowledged that by this action so sublime and words so clear the power of forgiving and retaining sins was given to the Apostles and their lawful successors for reconciling the faithful who have fallen after Baptism.“
The sacrament of Confession is the most sublime expression of God’s love and mercy towards His creatures, described so vividly in Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son (cf. Lk 15:11-32). The Lord always awaits us, with His arms wide open, waiting for us to repent—and then He will forgive us and restore us to the dignity of being His chidren.
The Popes have consistently recommended Christians to have regular recourse to this beautiful sacrament: Pope Pius XII writes, “For a constant and speedy advancement in the path of virtue we highly recommend the pious practice of frequent confession, introduced by the Church under the guidance of the Holy Spirit; for by this means we grow in a true knowledge of ourselves and in Christian humility, bad habits are uprooted, spiritual negligence and apathy are prevented, the conscience is purified and the will strengthened, salutary spiritual direction is obtained, and grace is increased by the efficacy of the sacrament itself .
My brothers and sisters in Christ, a stranger called in the middle of the night by mistake becomes the means of transformation and grace for a desperate young mother. Such selfless caring is the work of the Holy Spirit. A stranger is received into the confessional which, in turns becomes the pinhole of grace that rushes in and transforms a desperate penitent in the midst of a black night of despair into a peaceful joy. Such unconditional love and mercy is the work of the Holy Spirit.
Pentecost calls us to recognize that all peoples and individuals are called by God back into harmony and life. The Holy Spirit anointed Jesus for His mission, and the apostles also are anointed and sent out to proclaim the Good News. And what is this Good News? It’s the revelation that we are loved and forgiven immeasurably – that the Blessed Trinity loves us unconditionally and forgives us unconditionally. With this Good News, we can leave behind our self-indulgent or self-dependent ways, which leads only to destruction. We can reach out with open hands to receive the gift of God’s mercy freely given by the Holy Spirit in the sacraments and enter into a world where we live not by our own power or will, but by the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
If we are truly to flourish as human beings and invite others to flourish, we need to be able to receive God’s gifts freely and use them generously. It is essential to give love and mercy to others, but it is also essential that we receive love and mercy from the giver of all good gifts.
Mary, Spouse of the Holy Spirit, pray for us!
Pentecost – Cycle A
Sunday, June 4th, 2017