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 weakness that they struggle with, whether it be anger, gossip, a sexual weakness, an addiction, or something else 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 the 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 good enough 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 by our own strength, 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 short of the mark. But we don’t have to be afraid of that because Jesus himself has made up for us what we cannot do ourselves.
St. Paul also struggled with his own weaknesses which caused him great humiliation. You would imagine with all that God did through him, the amazing conversion experience he had and the many visions of Jesus that he had, 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)
And finally he says, ‘Who will save me from this wretched state? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ.’ That is the same fear that people keep telling me about 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 by our own strength, 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 and continue to try and do what is right.
However, it would also be a mistake to think that since Jesus has opened the possibility of heaven for us, that we can do whatever we want. ‘It’s all the same, God loves everyone and so everyone goes to heaven.’ That is an error of our times and it’s not what the Scriptures say. St. Paul writes, ‘Go on working out your salvation in fear and trembling.’ Don’t take it for granted, because we also have to play our part, which is to do our best to do what is right and live by God’s Commandments.
Why does God allow us to go on struggling? God could take away these weaknesses from us if He chose. The reason is because the very weaknesses we struggle with, are often the very thing that keeps us close to God. They make us aware that we are weak and how much we are in need of God’s mercy. Again in his writings St. Paul talks about a particular weakness that he had—although he doesn’t say what it was—and how he begged God to take it away from him. And he said that God gave him this ‘thorn in the flesh’ as he calls it, because of the extraordinary visions and miracles that he was given. This weakness helped him to stay humble. And although he begged God to take it away from him, the Lord said no.
‘Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take this thing away from me. But He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness’.’ (2 Cor 12:8).
No doubt he felt that he would serve God much better if he could overcome his weaknesses, but God doesn’t see it this way. We generally feel the same: ‘If only I could overcome my weaknesses/addictions, I would be more pleasing to God and I would serve him better.’
A man said to me in confession one time, ‘I have a terrible anger and I lose my temper so often. It causes me great shame. If I could just get rid of this anger I’d be perfect!’ I said to him, ‘You thank God for that anger!’ You can imagine how easily we could become arrogant if we thought we had overcome our weaknesses and we were ‘blameless’ before God, as a surprising number of people think they are. St. Thomas Aquinas says, ‘The only thing that we can take credit for are our sins’. Everything we have is a gift from God, including our abilities, our education, our successes, our health. We have nothing to boast about before God and it is often our weaknesses that help us to see this.
So is Christmas relevant to us in a practical way in our day to day living? It certainly 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. What is the best way for us to prepare for this wonderful feast? by doing what God asks us to do and that is to repent and confess our sins; to acknowledge our sinfulness before God and ask for his mercy.
‘Who will save me from this wretched state?
Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ.’ (Rom 7:24)