Breaking silence: sermon on the third Sunday of Lent

“He was casting out a devil, and the same was dumb: and when he had cast out the devil, the dumb spoke.”

The demon whom our Lord casts out in this gospel is said to be dumb; not, I think, as if the demon were himself unable to speak but because he caused whomever he possessed to become dumb. Perhaps — although this is only my speculation — perhaps God had created him as a holy angel whose special task would be to help human beings to praise God, and when he rebelled and became a devil, his malice caused him to do the opposite of what he had been created for and to render men dumb instead.

But in another sense we can say that all demons have the effect of rendering human beings unable to speak. Our Lord says that “whoever sins becomes the slave of sin”, and that ultimately means falling under the influence of some devil or other. But whoever sins becomes less able to speak; less able tell the truth about good and evil, because he doesn’t want to condemn himself. I sometimes feel that today we live in a world of silence; not a holy silence, such as you would hope to find in a religious house or monastery, but an unholy silence about God and sin and divine judgement. I sometimes feel that today it is not one man but the whole world that needs an exorcism.

However, each of us in his own life has one great remedy against the devil, and this remedy is confession. Just as the devil causes people to become silent about sin, so we can cast him out by speaking of our sins, not speaking just in any kind of way but by confession. Even on a natural level, it is a relief and a help for a person whose conscience is burdened to confess a sin to a person whom he trusts. This is no doubt why we sometimes read of people giving themselves up to the police for some crime they committed long ago, even if it is a crime that is perhaps no longer being investigated: they need to disburden their conscience.

So, rather as He did with matrimony, our Saviour took this natural need or instinct and elevated it to become part of a sacrament. I recently read the conversion story of a former Anglican priest who has now entered the Catholic Church. He described how he came over time, while still an Anglican priest, to believe in Christ’s real presence in the Holy Eucharist. That made him want to prepare for Holy Communion more carefully. So, he began to examine his conscience as Catholics do, calling to mind all his past sins by species and number; but the problem was, he didn’t have anyone to confess them to. At the beginning of his Communion service there was something called a general confession, which was like our Confiteor; but like our Confiteor, it didn’t involve mentioning any actual sins out loud. And so it seemed to this Anglican priest that, however hard he tried to feel sorry for his past sins, it was as if they were still sticking to him. Only when by the grace of God he was received into the Catholic Church and made a sacramental confession did he at last feel free.

Jesus gives us an image of all this in a gospel that we shall soon read on a weekday of Lent: the raising of Lazarus. If you remember, Christ calls Lazarus out of the tomb after he has been four days dead, and when he comes out, his face is still covered with a cloth, and his hands and feet wrapped in pieces of linen. Christ doesn’t Himself take these off from Lazarus; instead, He says to those who are with Him, “unbind him, and let him go”. So also in the sacrament of confession: it is divine power that brings a sinner back from spiritual death, but Christ entrusts to His ministers the task of pulling off the bands one by one, listening to and absolving each sin.

And finally when it comes to serious sins, confession is not just an optional extra, as we are free to have a devotion to this or that saint or to pray this or that prayer. No: Christ has given to His Church what we call the power of the keys, which is the power to absolve a sin or retain it. “I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven”, He said to Simon Peter. And there is no point in making someone your key-bearer, with power to let others into your house, if there is some other door open all the time. That is why the Church says that confession is the only normal means of dealing with serious sins committed after baptism.

So, then, if we are in need of confession before Easter, let us seize the opportunity; and if, as I hope, we are in the grace of God, let us pray for our fellow Catholics, and all those who are in the same position as the former Anglican priest whom I mentioned. May our Lord through His ministers unbind many, and let them go.