Today I want to address a question that often comes up when people are talking to me in confession and it is related to what we celebrate at Christmas. Actually it is more of a fear than a question. Almost everyone talks about a particular thing that they struggle with, whether it be anger, gossip, a sexual weakness, an addiction, or whatever; and it causes no end of suffering and humiliation. No matter how hard we try, we don’t seem to be able to overcome it. In fact I’ve often heard people say to me that they don’t feel there is any point in going to confession anymore because they just end up confessing this same sin again and again and they don’t seem to be getting any better, so where’s the point? It can make us afraid that we won’t be able to go to heaven because of our weakness. ‘Since I can’t overcome this sin, why would God allow me to go to heaven?’ That is usually the thinking behind it. However, when we think like that I believe we are really missing the whole point of the death and resurrection of Jesus.
The truth is that no matter how hard we try to be holy and overcome our sins, our weaknesses, we continually fall short of the mark. That is our reality. When he wrote to the Christians in Rome, St. Paul put it like this:
Since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, they are redeemed by his grace as a gift… to be received by faith (Rom 3:23ff).
In plain English that is saying to us, since all of us have sinned and can never be good enough for God, it is God himself who has made up the difference for us. God has made up for us what we cannot do ourselves, through the death and resurrection of Jesus. The fact that we will always be sinners and will always struggle with various weaknesses is no longer a problem, because God has made us ‘good enough’ through what Jesus did. That is what being ‘redeemed’ means. We cannot get to heaven by our own strength, by our own efforts, because we are too weak and too sinful and no matter how hard we try we keep falling, but we don’t have to be afraid of that because Jesus has made up for us, what we cannot do ourselves.
St. Paul also struggled with some kind of weakness that caused him great humiliation, in spite of the fact he had various visions of Jesus and of heaven. Listen to what he says about it:
I do not understand my own behavior; I do not act as I mean to, but I do things that I hate. ...the good thing I want to do, I never do; the evil thing which I do not want—that is what I do. (Cf. Rom 7:14-24)
Finally he says, ‘Who will save me from this wretched state? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ.’ That is the exact fear that people keep saying to me in confession: ‘Who will save me from this wretched weakness? How can I ever come before God in heaven when this is what I’m like?’ This is where God calls us to realize what Jesus has done for us. He has made up for our weakness himself. That is why the coming of Jesus among us at Christmas is such an extraordinary event, because it is the beginning of God making up for our weakness, our sinfulness. We are not able to be good enough for God by our own strength, but it no longer matters because Jesus has made himself the bridge between God and humanity. Now we can come before God without fear because Jesus has made it possible. Each time we celebrate the mass we are becoming present to that event—the sacrifice of Jesus—which made it possible for us to go to heaven. No other sacrifice or offering to God will ever be necessary for us, because the selfless act of Jesus dying for us has done everything necessary. All we have to do is to accept it. No wonder we celebrate the mass every day, in every church all over the world.
The mistake we continually make, which causes us to be afraid, is to think that we have to become ‘good enough’ for God. But the problem is that that is impossible for us by our own strength. If we stop there, then we would have every reason to despair. But once we realize that it is Jesus who steps in and bridges the gap, then we have endless hope, because it no longer depends on us being good enough. All we have to do is accept this extraordinary gift from God.
So is Christmas relevant to us in a practical way in our day to day living? It totally is, because the coming of God into our world in the person of Jesus is what reassures us that no matter how weak or sinful we are, the path to heaven will always remain open to us as long as we ask God for it. All we have to do is accept from God this amazing gift which He is offering us.
‘Who will save me from this wretched state?
Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ’ (Rom 7:24).