Googling the word “redemption” gave me the following: the action of saving or being saved from sin, error, or evil. Jesus died to take away our sin. How many times do we speak and hear this phrase in a day? It rolls off the tongue without even a thought. In another unlikely moment, my fellow teaching assistant (who is from Russia) told me after class one day that she had never understood why Jesus had to die on the cross. It was a sad story and all, she said, but what did we humans get out of it? I told her very basically that Jesus paid the price for our sins and that because of his death and resurrection we humans could go to heaven when we die, as could all the righteous people who died before the time of Christ, who had had to wait in the realm of the dead for him to free them. This was all so basic to me—I couldn’t imagine how anybody knew anything about Jesus without understanding the central point of what he did for us.
Without understanding, I say. Yes, I understood. But did I really? Looking back on what have been the things that have kept me Christian (specifically Catholic), over the last few years I would always say the Eucharist and the Resurrection. The idea of being freed from my sins was always there, always present, but apparently not as central to my faith as other aspects. But not to worry—I soon found myself in a situation which reminded me to better appreciate this central message of the cross.
I am a pretty regular confession-goer. I try to make it a routine (in the sense of a good habit) and never stay too far away from this sacrament. Over the past year, however, confession had become sort of a routine for me in the negative sense. My most absurd point was once when, according to my schedule, I needed to go to confession, but my mind was drawing a blank on what to confess. Always the same old stuff. Finally I ended up confessing not petting my cat enough! The priest laughed at (with) me, though as a cat lover himself, he understood how those lonely meows for my attention might plague my conscience…
A couple weeks before my Koinonia retreat, however, I actually confessed something of which I was very deeply ashamed. So ashamed that I would not go to any of our chaplains, nor to any priest face-to-face. That was the hardest confession I’d made in a long time, and the priest was actually quite stern with me. I came out of the confessional and sobbed through Mass, hating my guts—knowing I’d been forgiven, but not quite feeling it yet, and wondering where to go from here. I remember just staring at the crucifix in the chapel and thinking, God, you can change me. What else did you die for except to change me? What I had confessed was more of a sinful attitude than an isolated action—attitudes can be very stubborn, and I knew I couldn’t change it on my own. All I could do was dump my mess at the feet of the cross and beg God to transform it somehow.
On my retreat I was honored to hear some of the most intense stories of spiritual struggle and ongoing conversion I’ve ever heard in real life. At this point in the weekend, I became very aware of the fact that faith is not just a game or pastime, and that the message of the cross is not just an inspirational quote. (Actually, this kind of made my retreat.) As luck or the Holy Spirit would have it, I was scheduled to lead a discussion section on St. Augustine’s Confessions the very next Friday. I don’t think any TA was ever so on fire while writing her lesson plan! I wanted desperately to convey to my students the immediate relevancy of Augustine’s story of conversion, which is so completely contemporary despite the fact that so many of the students found his writing style boring because of the many bible quotes and “repetitive” exclamations praising God.
To adapt our discussion of confession and conversion to the secular classroom, I referred to the confessions of politicians, TV personalities and nationally known convicted criminals. I asked my students how believable they found these confessions and (sometimes) subsequent conversions, and whether or not they believed that personal change on the scale of the Confessions was possible. One section was more optimistic, the other more skeptical. I also asked what society’s reaction to certain conversions said about our collective belief in personal change. While we discussed the story of Kelly Gissandaner, for example, who was executed in Georgia last year for plotting her husband’s murder but who experienced a conversion through studying theology in prison, one of my students exactly stated the point I was implicitly trying to make with that example: a society that supports capital punishment is not one for whom redemption and conversion are real, because it would kill even those who have reformed their lives (supposedly the point of the prison system). This, however, is just one of the many ways by which we can measure our belief in God’s transformative power. Every day we are met with plenty of less dramatic opportunities to forgive others and to work with God in bettering ourselves. To every Christian (including myself) for whom the Cross is in danger of becoming a mere ornament, I would ask the question inspired by my atheist English professor: Do you believe in redemption? How are your actions, choices and attitudes formed by this belief?
 For a solid introduction or a rich refresher on the redemptive aspects of Christ’s death, see the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraphs 599-623. For his descent to the dead, see paragraphs 632-637.