For some reason, I couldn’t shake a curious riddle that took hold of my mind as I sat down to share my thoughts. “When is a zebra not a zebra?” I had no answer, so I made up one up. “When it is more interested in misbehaving in spots more than keeping clean its stripes.” I can hear my angel remind me: “if you have to explain something, it likely isn’t humorous.” So, please, hang in here with me. Stripes as in a military rank? Yeah, I thought so. Never mind. Not humorous. On to my point.
St. Paul discusses a critical concern for us believers: if we deny Christ, He will deny us. Another way of saying this is through my dumb zebra humor: if we’re more interested misbehaving in spots, rather than maintaining our stripes of fidelity with him, heaven help us…because Heaven may come to deny us. For the modern day Catholic, likely this is news. We usually only hear about God’s willingness to forgive, His eagerness to embrace us as sinners, that He is the prodigal Father who wants to look past our faults--all of which is true, but only half the picture. God is infinitely merciful to a point in time…after which He will no longer show us mercy. When we die, there is no changing our spots for stripes, no mercy for our faults and failings; only a just judgment awaits us then. The Church clearly teaches that our denial of Him in sin can mean our loss of Him in heaven, even if that isn’t something we usually hear.
For this reason, every mass begins with an examination of conscience, calling us to a holy perseverance which is critical to our cooperation with Christ’s redemption for us sinners. That is, we begin first acknowledging our sinfulness and then praying that we might become renewed, about “what we have done and in what we have failed to do.” Frankly, I don’t often put as much stress on the latter as God would likely have me do. Recollecting my faults is burdensome enough; trying to consider the many, many ways I could have been more Christlike and failed…thank goodness we are still around to strive yet again for the essential pursuit of perfect holiness. “Be holy as I am holy;” “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” These are not suggestions but commands. It’s like the Lord is saying, “leave the spots behind; polish the stripes.”
Now, it is not my place to comment on whether anyone in the confessional has, in fact, ever told me they have nothing to confess, but if they did, I would point out to them that there are most assuredly things they “have not done” in the pursuit for perfection that call out for contrition. Perhaps we did not hold our tongue when overwhelmed with criticism, or we did not forgive with the same spirit that we ourselves would want to be forgiven. Practically speaking, the list is endless.
Think of how a child is mortified after being called out for doing something wrong. His eyes well up with tears, his chest heaves, his sobs are uncontrollable...when he is truly sorry. This marvel of contrition only happens for a short while, until we learn as adults to make exceptions in our conscience and find reasons to excuse ourselves. It seems almost as if we slowly train ourselves to ignore or forget what we have failed to do; it is so much easier to feel sorry for offenses we have definitely committed and leave it at that. But the holiness God calls us to requires perfection; we are called to be saints, to exchange all our sinful spots for angelic stripes. God bless you in that effort!