When I was in the Holy Land, we made a trip to the Jordan River. As you may or may not know, the Jordan River is a smaller river that goes through parts of the middle east but eventually empties into the dead sea. The Dead Sea is the lowest body of water on earth and, there is so much stuff in it you naturally flote. But back to my story about the Jordan River. While we were there we saw a group of pilgrims being baptized, they were not Catholic, but it was clear they were baptizing. I understood what they were doing and appreciated it. However, if I didn’t know about baptism and the significance of the Jordan river I would probably say to myself. “Why are they dumping themselves like that into the river?” It’s muddy; their clothes are not going to get that clean. It just doesn’t seem like a wise thing to do.
This is what it was like for Naaman in our first reading. While we don’t hear it read, Naaman is hesitant at first to plunge himself into the river seven times. The river is not that impressive, it’s muddy, and there are more impressive rivers nearby. However, Naaman goes ahead with it, and as we heard in the reading he was cured of his leprosy.
In our own lives, we may not have leprosy, but we do have spiritual ills that we struggle. That is our struggle with sin and temptation. We, too, are in need of the cleansing grace of God in our lives, just like Naaman received for his leprosy. We are blessed to have a sacrament that can clean us from our sins, and we can receive it regularly.
However, I think we can learn something from the lepers we heard about in both our first reading and our Gospel. What we see them all do is that they recognize their leprosy and call out to the Lord. We see this, especially in the ten lepers they stand at a distance and say to Jesus “Jesus Master, have pity on us.” They were commanded by Jewish law to cry out unclean when they moved. They knew they had leprosy, so they kept their distance as prescribed by the law, but they called out to Jesus because they knew he could heal them.
Followed by this, both Naaman and the ten lepers follow the command of the Lord. Naaman dips himself in the water seven times, and the ten show themselves to the priests. Finally what Naaman does, but only one of the lepers from the Gospel do return praise to God and to seek to amend their lives. Jesus tells the leper stand up and go your faith has saved you. Jesus is commanding him to go and walk in the ways of the Lord. Naaman makes a promise that he would not offer anything to other God’s
Something similar happens for us in the confessional and too in our lives in general. When we go to confession, we go before the priest, and we acknowledge our sins before him. When we do this we go before the priest in humility and trust. We should not forget that when we go to the priest we are speaking to our Lord. When we go to confession we humbly present our sins to God.
Secondly, we are given a penance; we are given an action to do in response to our sinfulness. Now don’t be confused; our penance isn’t what forgives our sin absolution does that. But the penance is what we owe to God due to our sin. Another way to understand it is that we are paying off a debt due to the sin and penance pays that debt.
Finally, penance also points us to something important in our lives when it comes to confessional. We don’t only go to confession to have our sins forgiven. When we go to confession, we hope that we have a change of life and a change of heart. We see what Naaman did after he was cured of his leprosy. We are cured of our sin by absolution; our response should be I will make every effort to become a better Christian from here on out. None of us are going to be perfect in it; there have been many times when I’ve had to confess the same thing over and over again. However if we make that effort to strive to be better after every confession we will grow in holiness and strive away from our sin.
Confession is a humbling experience for all of us, even for me as a priest. It is humbling to go before God and confess our sins to him, to go up to him and say God I have failed you in this way. God responds to that by giving us absolution through the priest. He cleanses us of our sins, just like he cleansed Naaman. However, we still have our part to play. The act of contrition sums it up nicely. “I firmly resolve with the help of your grace to sin no more and to avoid the near occasion of sin.”