December 6, 2012
During the Cold War, on the night of August 13, 1961, while people were fast asleep, East Germany began constructing the Berlin Wall. When finished, this 12 foot high and 103 mile long barrier separated East Berlin from West Berlin. The Soviets built it to halt the flow of emigrants from the communist sector of the city to the free world.
The most famous crossing point along the Wall was Checkpoint Charlie. At this border, guards scrupulously made sure every passport was legitimate before letting any one pass to the other side. Checkpoint stood at the crossing point from a godless state to a longed-for freedom.
At the border separating the Old and New Testaments stands John the Baptist. At this historic point of division is the passage from the Law to grace. For those longing for the Messiah, John the Baptist is Checkpoint Charlie. With the fiery language of a prophet, he does everything he can to make sure that those listening to him are ready to make the crossing from their former way of life to the freedom that Jesus is bringing. (cf. Walter Brueggemann and Charles Campbell, The Threat of Life: Sermons on Pain, Power, and Weakness, p. 107).
John’s first word is “Repent” (Mt 3:2). He calls his listeners to turn from sin. With fierce condemnation of sin, he urges them to turn from wickedness. He even threatens them with the damnation of hell fire. He says that the axe is at the trunk of the tree, and every evil tree is to be cut down and thrown into the fire.
For many today, John’s fiery call to repentance belongs to the annals of history. Not because Christ has already come and, therefore, there is no need to prepare for his coming as did the contemporaries of John. No! But because we think that we no longer need to hear his call. He speaks so clearly about sin and the modern world no longer accepts sin as a reality.
Sin has not been banished. It hides beneath the polite labels we give it at times. So often, we attribute evil actions to a neurosis, a social maladjustment, or some emotional or physical imbalance. We no longer attribute evil to the will of the person turning away from God’s will. Sin has not disappeared, only our admission of sin, and hence, at times, our own responsibility and guilt.
To prepare his listeners for the coming of Jesus, John made them aware of their own personal sins. He lists the greed, the extortion, the pride and selfishness that cut them off from one another and God. He urges sinners to throw off their habits of sin, to bring forth righteous acts and to turn their hearts back to God. John demands such conversion from all, the public sinner as well as the outwardly pious. He insists this is the way to welcome the Messiah and to enter the kingdom of God.
Curiously enough, when Jesus begins his public ministry as the long-awaited Messiah, he repeats John the Baptist’s summons to repentance. He cries out, “Repent.” But there is something new here. Something fresh. Unlike John, Jesus does not call for repentance as a preparation for the kingdom. No! Repentance is the effect of the kingdom already present.
Jesus’ very first word is the announcement, “This is the time of fulfillment” (Mk 1:15). The years of promise and prophecy have come to an end. This is the decisive moment. God is now acting.
God intervenes in Jesus who ushers in the kingdom. In him, the kingdom of God is present, albeit at times hidden, but present. The kingdom comes as gift. And it evokes a response. It calls for conversion and faith. That is why Jesus immediately adds to his proclamation of the kingdom, “Repent and believe the gospel” (Mk 1:15).
“All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rm 3:23). As the wise man says, “the just man sins seven times a day” (Prov 24: 16). We are sinners; our sins offend God and, no matter how hidden they may be, they harm the Church, whose members we are. And so, in confession, we bring our sins to God and to his Church. Human and weak like every other member of the Church, the priest represents the Church and stands
in persona Christi. When we confess our sins with contrition and purpose of amendment and then receive absolution, our sins are forgiven and we are reconciled to God and the Church.
As Christmas draws near, we remember that Jesus, whose coming John heralded, has already come. But, he did not come and then abandon us. Jesus continually wishes to come into our lives. If we take the time to look at ourselves in the light of his presence, we can easily recognize our own sins. When we realize how much he loves us despite our offenses, we are moved to sorrow. When we bring that sorrow, that repentance, to him in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, we are made whole.
In this time before Christmas, our priests are most available for the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Going to confession so that we receive the Eucharist with even greater worthiness helps us heed the Baptist’s cry of making ready the way of the Lord in our own lives. Confession can become for us a ‘Checkpoint Charlie’ where we pass from the enslaving grip of sin to the freedom of those who belong to the kingdom of God.