January 31, 2021
I stand by your side, sometimes, in front of the icon of our Lord and I listen.
Sometimes the words emerge with hesitance, the voice of a heart trying to find its depths. Sometimes the words have been planned, efficient, the reading of a list prepared with focus and direction. At times the words are afraid, a wall of embarrassment the speaker knows must come down even if it takes several good pushes.
Still, I stand by your side and listen.
Do you know this is hard for me as well? Do you know that as your confession gushes forth I say “Me too, me too” because I know that being a doctor exempts no one from illness and being a Priest exempts no one from sin? As hard as your words are to say they’re sometimes equally as hard to hear, not because of judgment or frustration or even sadness but because they’re a mirror to me and remind me of my own mortality, of my own need to have someone listen to me as well?
I close my eyes because I want all my thoughts to be directed to you, to really listen and I cover you with my stole because I want you to feel the shelter, and sometimes the words of help come quickly but, more often than not, I just stay silent. The truth is that’s its not about me really, never was. It’s about you coming to know that your darkness is not greater than God’s love, your sins not more powerful His forgiveness, and your brokenness not beyond God’s healing. For you, and me as well.
He was a sinful man, this Zacchaeus, a man who had made a good living at the expense of others, taking money by fraud and force. We’re never given his backstory, how he got into this sordid business, how he lived his life. We only know that one day, driven by something inside, he wanted to see Jesus and his wish was granted although it took a bit of tree climbing.
We know nothing of the conversation he had with our Lord that evening. Still, it must have been profound and touched the deepest part of his heart because the one who loved, even worshipped, money publicly spoke announced his deepest sin, promised to make more than restoration and, in turn, was publicly declared by our Lord, a former traitor to his people, to be a son of Abraham and worthy of grace and forgiveness.
Such things are one of the central themes of our Gospels, the desire, the willingness of our Lord, to seek out, to encounter, to befriend, and to forgive those who were caught in the webs of sin that so easily entangle us even today. To those who sought Him out in the midst of their brokenness he offered, not a glossing over of the things that had torn them apart, but a way out marked by a distinct and direct diagnosis coupled with a grace beyond measure that healed and rendered powerless the illness.
Although we are all bound by sin God sees His image within us and stretches His hands in mercy to restore that which has been marred. Although we all have moments when the sorrows and temptations of the world overcome even our best defenses, He pours oil and wine on the resulting wounds and resolves to care for us until we are restored.
Our Lord sees us as how we will one day be, not this broken and fading body subject to the pounding waves of life’s storms but as radiant, beautiful, the fullness of what we were created to be, the saint, the icon of His glory that is His plan for us. The name Zacchaeus means “pure” and our Lord saw the purity this man who others, even those who claimed a relationship with God, could not see. Our Lord saw not the cheat, the liar, the fraud, but the man who would one day be ordained by the Apostle Peter as the first Bishop of Caesarea in Palestine, the very same Zacchaeus, who others had given up hope on served our Lord faithfully from that day on and died as his bishop.
It is the same with us as well.
We are afraid. We are embarrassed. The thought of our sins may overwhelm us even as we are hungry, like Zacchaeus, to be rid of their burden, free of their sickness, and released from their chains. I know this because I share those same feelings, that mixture of hope and dread as I approach making my confession as a Priest at the altar. Still, as a sickness has to be named before a proper cure can be found so my sins need to be declared, like Zacchaeus, in the presence of my Lord so that I, too, may be restored as a Child of Abraham and even more as a servant of the One who was Abraham’s hope.
All I can tell you is this. Come. As you stand before the icon of Christ those of us sinners that God has, in His abundance of mercy, granted the grace of the Priesthood are not your judge, your jury, and certainly not your executioner. It is our great and holy duty to, in some small way, be present to and with you as Christ was on that long ago day with Zacchaeus, to listen, to help, to point the way as best we can, and assure you, not because of our worthiness but because of our Lord’s that you are restored and forgiven.
Before the icon of Christ there is grace, mercy, healing, and peace. Before the words of confession come out of your mouth love is already prevailing, wellness is flowing from heaven, and chains are being torn asunder. As you whisper, heaven sings. As you shed tears the waters of your baptism, refreshed by the Holy Spirit, clean you anew. As you, and I, admit where we have fallen, even before the sound comes from our throat our gracious Lord is already lifting us up.
Some say the health of a Church is in the number of people in attendance or the amount of the budget. Perhaps, though, the true measure of a healthy church is in the number of people who come to confession because numbers and money can be a formality but a true confession comes from the heart and reveals a desire to draw near to God that sets both people and parishes alight with a holy fire.
All I can say is “Come”. Don’t be afraid. Your secrets are safe. God’s love for you is undaunted by any of your sins. His grace is beyond measure. You have nothing to lose except those things that were already making you sick, the darkness that took the light from your soul, the guilt that made you miserable, and the chains, so unnecessary, that held you in despair.