Ash Wednesday

Preached February 14, 2018; St. Peter Catholic Church, The Dalles, Oregon

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Now what does Valentine’s Day have to do with Ash Wednesday? As we all know the symbol of Valentine’s Day is the red heart. So we can rephrase the question as: What does the heart have to do with Ash Wednesday? Everything.

The human heart should belong first of all to God, after the example of St. Valentine himself, Bishop and Martyr. When we commit sin, we take our heart away from God. In today’s 1st reading we heard God exhort us through the prophet Joel: Return to me with your whole heart … rend your hearts, not your garments. In other words, we need to take the Valentine’s Day heart, which we have perhaps bestowed all to freely in places and in ways that we shouldn’t have, and tear it down the middle.

But maybe tearing isn’t really enough. The Psalm today is taken from Psalm 51, David’s famous Psalm of repentance. In another part of that Psalm the repentant David prays: The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise. (Ps 51:19) The English word ‘contrite’ is a bit too weak in its meaning; the root meaning that we have forgotten is ‘crushed’. The sinful heart needs to be crushed into a fine powder, like incense, so as to be placed on the glowing coal of the thurible, be consumed, and rise up to the throne of God as a pleasing aroma, an acceptable sacrifice.

The crushed heart, however, is not the end of the story. The crushed, penitent heart is what enables us also to pray with the Psalmist, Create in me a clean heart, O God. God wants to give us a new heart, a clean heart, but first we must crush the old sinful heart that we took away from him.  Then he will restore to us the gift of his Holy Spirit and renew in us the joy of salvation.

Now all of this presupposes that there really is such a thing as sin. Peter Kreeft once wrote that you can’t repent if you don’t believe there is any sin to repent of and you can’t believe there is any real sin unless you believe there is a moral law. Sin means disobeying the moral law. We could add that the moral law implies the lawgiver and so sin means disobeying God, the lawgiver. In any case, moral relativism would eliminate the moral law and with it, God, sin, repentance, forgiveness, salvation, and joy.

So on this Valentine’s day I am going to speak about the crushed heart, crushed and reduced to ash, that prepares us to receive God’s forgiveness and mercy, the new and clean heart he wants to fashion in us and so bestow upon us the joy of salvation.

The path of the crushed heart is the path of confession, the sacrament of penance or reconciliation. It will be good to get into the nuts of the bolts matter, because many people don’t really know anymore what confession is all about or how to go about making a good confession.

There are some members of older generations that seem to have learned very well the whole bit about ‘kind and number’, but never seem to have learned that this was meant only for mortal sins. So then the pendulum swung in the other directions and for a couple of generations now I think Catholics have been taught, “Don’t bring your ‘laundry list’ to confession, just tell the priest what is weighing on your conscience.” Well, when it comes to mortal sins, by all means, bring your laundry list and give your soul good scrubbing.

In any case, since clarity in this matter is needed, let me turn to the law of the Church, the Code of Canon Law.

First of all the Code tells us: “In the sacrament of penance the faithful who confess their sins to a legitimate minister, are sorry for them, and intend to reform themselves obtain from God through the absolution imparted by the same minister forgiveness for the sins they have committed after baptism and, at the same, time are reconciled with the Church which they have wounded by sinning.” (CIC 959, emphasis added)

Here we have the basic requirements of the penitent – confession of sin, sorrow for sin (contrition), and intention to change, without which the sorrow would not be very sincere. When we confess our sins in this way the absolution given by a priest who has the faculties to hear confessions gives us the forgiveness of God himself. We also see that this sacrament reconciles us to the Church, which is one of the reasons why we cannot just confess to God, but must confess also to the minister of the Church, the Body of Christ, which we have wounded by our sins.

On top of confession, sorrow, and the firm purpose of amendment we must be ready to make up for our sin, to make satisfaction or perform penance. The penance assigned in confession starts us on that path. (cf. CCC 1459-1460; CIC 981)

Next we have: “Individual and integral confession and absolution constitute the only ordinary means by which a member of the faithful conscious of grave sin is reconciled with God and the Church. Only physical or moral impossibility excuses from confession of this type; in such a case reconciliation can be obtained by other means.” (CIC 960, emphasis added)

“Individual and integral confession” – Yes, that can be hard, very hard; that can be painful, embarrassing, and humiliating. That is the way of the ‘crushed heart’. Yet, if we have not been ashamed to commit grave or mortal sins, neither should we be ashamed to confess them.

But what is a mortal sin? It is a serious violation of one of the ten commandments or five precepts of the Church that is both knowing and deliberate. Innocent ignorance is excused, but if we do not even know the ten commandments or five precepts of the Church we cannot plead ignorance. Innocent ignorance is excused, but not negligence, much less contempt.

Yes, in case of physical or moral impossibility an act of perfect contrition suffices, but what is perfect contrition? Perfect contrition is to be sorry for our sins purely because we have offended God, who is all good and deserving of all our love. Perfect contrition is an act of pure love for God, under the impulse of the Holy Spirit, and thereby receives the forgiveness of sins. Nevertheless, it is hard for us to know for sure that our contrition is perfect and pure. That is one reason why we need the sacrament. Further, even if we make an act of contrition or legitimately receive a general absolution, we need to intend to confess our mortal sins once it is possible for us to do so.

Next: “A member of the Christian faithful is obliged to confess in kind and number all grave sins committed after baptism and not yet remitted directly through the keys of the Church nor acknowledged in individual confession, of which the person has knowledge after diligent examination of conscience.” (CIC 988.1, emphasis added)

The ‘keys of the Church’ refer to the keys that Jesus gave to St. Peter, through which the Church has the power from Jesus to forgive sins. Whatever you bind on earth is bound in heaven; whatever you loose on earth is loosed in heaven. (Mt 16:19)

Note, that we are obliged to confess all of our mortal sins. If for fear or shame we hide a sin, our whole confession is invalid. We will need to confess everything again and also the sacrilegious confession. If, however, we innocently forget to confess a mortal sin, it is forgiven. Later if we remember the sin, we are still obliged to confess it. Why? Because forgiveness restores us to God’s friendship and the life of grace, but it does not heal all the damage done by our sin. We need to confess all of our sins because, we might say, what is not confessed is not healed.

Just what does it mean to confess mortal sins by kind and number?

Let us imagine a businessman in the Midwest who siphons off money from his company into his private account. After doing this sort of thing for about a year, he becomes disturbed in his conscience and goes to confession. If he just confesses in a general way to stealing, he hasn’t said much. Here the amount of money he has stolen is critical to the recognition of the gravity of his sin. He will also need to make restitution.

Of if a teenager confesses to bullying others, in a general way, his confession might not be complete. Has he physically bullied others, pushing them or hitting them? How often? To the point of doing real injury? Or has he verbally abused them? Has he lied about his victims, damaging their reputation? Has someone lost friends because of his bullying activity?

Also, one mortal sin often leads to or involves others. If a man engaged in an adulterous affair for six months, it will not be enough for him just to say that he was unfaithful to his wife. He will need to say how many times or how often he actually committed act of adultery. In addition to the actual adultery there were probably innumerable lies he told his wife – and his mistress. Those lies were serious enough to be mortal sins. Then the money he spent on gifts for his mistress is money he effectively stole from his wife and family. Finally, if he was going to communion all that time, all those communions were sacrilegious.

There is no need to go into detail, but the penitent does need to prepare with a diligent examination of conscience; he does need to overcome his embarrassment and shame; he does need to name his mortal sins, all of them, to the best of his ability, by kind and number.

A priest might ask questions of a penitent in order to help bring out the full gravity of his sin, the whole measure of ‘kind and number’, but he will not want to turn the confessional into a sort of ‘torture chamber’, to use the expression of Pope Francis. Rather, he the priest will start with the supposition that the penitent has made already a diligent examination of conscience. Sometimes a penitent has been away from the sacrament for a while and really needs help to make a good confession; he can ask the priest for help.

Certainly this is hard work, humiliating, and painful. It is the way of the ‘crushed heart’, the way to forgiveness, to the new and clean heart, to salvation, joy, and peace. This is the sacrifice that is acceptable to God.

There is no need for drama, just an honest, sincere, and heartfelt confession after a diligent examination of conscience.

All this about kind and number has to do with the confession of mortal sins. We should also confess venial sins, but we are not obliged to do so and we need not worry about getting everything by ‘kind and number’. What is most important here is the sorrow for sin and the desire to change. For regular confession, I recommend at least every month or two. It is like regularly cleaning your house, or changing the oil in your car.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us:  “The regular confession of our venial sins helps us form our conscience, fight against evil tendencies, let ourselves be healed by Christ and progress in the life of the Spirit. By receiving more frequently through this sacrament the gift of the Father’s mercy, we are spurred to be merciful as he is merciful.” (CCC 1458)

Remember, the path of the ‘crushed heart’ offered to God in confession is the path to clean heart and the joy of salvation. Jesus Christ, became man, was born of the Virgin Mary, and gave his life on the Cross that we might be freed from our sins, reconciled to God, and have the joy of salvation. Now is the acceptable time; now is the day of salvation.




Fr. Joseph Levine graduated from Thomas Aquinas College and after a long journey was ordained to the priesthood for the Diocese of Baker, Oregon. He currently serves as pastor of St. Peter Catholic Church in The Dalles on the Columbia River.