Every Lent -- thanks to an idea I found years ago on a Catholic blog listed below -- we set up a crown of thorns in our living room. It's just a small brown vine wreath covered with toothpicks, but it has a very specific purpose.
Each time one of my children performs a small sacrifice, or does something nice for someone else, he or she gets to pull a thorn from the crown of thorns.
Acts of sacrifice
One by one, the number of thorns dwindles, leaving the vine wreath bare. On Easter morning, the crown of thorns, now void of toothpicks, is covered with beautiful flowers, a symbol of how God took away our hurtful sins and replaced them with beauty of eternal life.
"Can I take out a thorn, Mama?" is a question I hear often during Lent as my children eagerly catch themselves doing small acts of kindness.
With relish, they pluck a toothpick from the crown of thorns and toss it with a satisfying "ping" into a small clear bowl in the center of the wreath.
Would that we, with such childlike satisfaction, seek to pluck out our own sins, laying bare our souls and allowing God's grace to replace our sin with something beautiful.
We can do this, each time we go to Confession. Yet, Confession, although it is medicine for our flawed souls, is often something we -- or our loved ones -- resist. Why?
Perhaps we haven't gone to Confession in years and don't even know what to confess. Perhaps we are uncomfortable with having to admit our faults out loud. Perhaps we don't understand Confession, what it really is and why we need to go.
Whatever the case, the truth remains the same: for the sake of our eternal souls, each of us needs to get to Confession before it's too late, before we leave this earth and enter eternity. To be a Catholic in good standing, we are required to go to Confession once a year at the bare minimum. But going regularly, such as once a month, is strongly encouraged.
How do we explain to our loved ones the need for them to cultivate the desire to truly examine their lives, recognize sin, and make frequent use of this sacrament?
First, pray for them. Realize that if distance or strained relationships prevent you from convincing them to return to Confession, you can pray for the Holy Spirit to bring someone into their lives who can.
Offer up small sacrifices specifically for them and offer each little sacrifice as a prayer with specific loved ones' names in mind.
Second, when a natural opportunity arises, provide them with a detailed examination of conscience and an explanation of how to make a good Confession.
Third, explain to them how Jesus instituted Confession in the first place. After Jesus rose from the dead, He appeared to the disciples and said, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you."
When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, 'Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained'" (John 20: 21-23).
The priest in the confessional, just like at Mass, is acting in persona Christi, in the person of Christ, so he is a vessel through which God's forgiving graces flow.
If we make frequent Confessions, gradually we lessen our sins because by drawing closer to Our Lord and exposing ourselves to His grace, we are made more aware of our sins -- including sinful thoughts and other venial sins -- and thus, with His grace, we can work on rooting them out.
'Clean house' this Lent
Lent is the perfect time to "clean house" just like we do in spring -- for where sin abides, Jesus cannot, so we must get our houses in order. We can begin by rooting out our favorite little sins, the ones we try to rationalize away or the ones of which we are most ashamed.
Maybe I haven't killed anyone or stolen anything. But maybe I gossip. Or lose my patience with my children. Or roll my eyes inwardly at my neighbor's behavior. We may try to hide these recurring "secret" sins, upholding a perfect façade to impress our friends. But God is not impressed by this facade, and His opinion is the only one that counts.
God knows I love Him and want to follow Him even though I fail -- a lot. However, following God is more than just good intentions. There is a balance between forgiving yourself, beating yourself up, and being realistic about sometimes failing.
That is where Confession comes in. The sacrament allows us to open ourselves up to God's forgiveness and grace that wipe away our failings and make our stained souls clean again and again, which is not something we can do on our own.
In Christ Is Passing By, St. Josemaria Escriva says, "A Christian's struggle must be unceasing, for interior life consists in beginning and beginning again. This prevents us from proudly thinking that we are perfect already . . . Interior life does not consist in feelings but in divine grace, willingness, and love . . . In this adventure of love we should not be depressed by our falls, not even serious falls, if we go to God in the Sacrament of Penance contrite and resolved to improve . . . Jesus Christ is always waiting for us to return to him; he knows our weakness" (pp. 172-74).
This Lent, make it a priority to come to Our Lord in the beautiful Sacrament of Confession, and lovingly encourage your children and those around you to do the same.
For more on Lenten ideas with children, visit www.catholicicing.com/lenten-activities-for-children/
Julianne Nornberg, mother of four young children, is a member of St. John the Baptist Parish, Waunakee.