By Fr. Joe DeFrancisco
The Gospel of St. Luke begins and ends with a message of “peace.” St. Luke narrates the announcement of Jesus’ birth to the shepherds in these words: “Glory to God and Peace on those who receive His Graces.” (Lk. 2:14) Likewise, in Jesus’ final appearance to his apostles he bestows on them his final gift while still on earth, “Peace.” Jesus then commissions them: “in the name of Jesus-Messiah, penance for the remission of sins is to be preached to all nations.”(Lk.24:47) The new “Catechism of the Catholic Church” cites this passage as the explicit foundation of the new sacrament of reconciliation. However, the meaning, nature and theology of reconciliation and “atonement” are deeply rooted in Jesus’ Jewish experience.
God laid out for the ancient Hebrews the Mosaic Laws of the Ten Commandments which he forbade the Hebrews to break or violate. Should they choose to disobey God and break these and other laws and ordinances in Torah they were required to prayerfully and humbly ask God’s forgiveness, throw themselves on God’s mercy and promise to do their “kippurim,” acts of penance and charity. These acts of reconciliation were to be done at the end of the New Year celebration, Rosh Hoshanah, and celebrated during the two high holy days of “Yom Kippur.”
Furthermore, the celebration of “atonement” required Jewish believers to pray and celebrate their process of reconciliation in the temple. The public celebration reminded the Hebrews that they shared a common human struggle, the capacity to go against God’s will and choose personal sin. The seriousness of Yom Kippur also reminded them of yet another human factor, “shared” communal or social sin.
The idea of personal and social sin is at the heart of Christian theology as well. In Romans, Chapter 2, Paul teaches that those who break the laws of God cannot be “just” in God’s eyes, but those who keep the laws are declared “just.” (Rom.2: 13) It may be said that, if Christians wish to do the works of justice in the world, they must be first living a just or righteous life as God defines a godly and spiritual life.
As Jewish believers continue to answer God’s command and call to reconciliation and “atonement,” so Christians are invited to embrace the sacraments and graces of Christian penance. The early Christian church first celebrated the power of God’s forgiveness in and through the original sacrament of baptism. This was considered the preeminent sacrament for the remission of all sin. With the influence of St. Augustine’s theology of infant baptism, the church was encouraged to embrace the notion of a common, inherited “fallen condition.”
Augustine named this “original sin,” thus justifying the new practice of infant baptism.
Over the centuries the utopian ideal that, once baptized one should never sin, could not be realized in a fallen, sinful humanity.
Consequently, the church through the centuries introduced several forms of reconciliation, penance, confession, distancing oneself from the practice of public penance and, ultimately, choosing the celebration of frequent and private “confession” of sins.
What may have been lost over the later centuries is St. Paul’s conviction that we are all “one” body, intimately connected in and through the person of Jesus Christ. When one member is lost, sick, weak or sinful, the effects are felt in the entire body. This was meant to condemn the over-exaggeration of those who believed that sin is quite private and personal, a matter between one individual and God alone. Adhering to this idea causes an immediate break with both Jewish and Christian theology.
Once Vatican II published the first vernacular prayers in the Roman Sacramentary, all Christians celebrating the Eucharist would be reminded of the necessity to reject the idea of private sin as we pray: “I confess to God, and to you my brothers and sisters, that I have sinned…” The decrees of Vatican II addressed to bishops and priests spells out the directive of the Constitution on the Liturgy requiring new ritual revisions so that the true nature and theology of reconciliation may be embrace by the church.
The new forms reinforce the true tradition of the church which invites Christians to seek reconciliation with God and with the people of God, the church. Whether at the Eucharist or within personal or communal penance, we are confronted with the effects of our sin in the world and where justice demands that we make amends and heal those effects. The challenge for both the church as a whole and of individual believers is to maintain a critical connection between our celebration of this sacrament and the necessity of ongoing personal and communal “conversion.” We can only be at peace with God and become “peacemakers” if we are open to the ways that Jesus, through the Holy Spirit, leads us through an interior journey of healing our sin and being transformed into the “image of God-Jesus.”
The ways in which we seek and beg God’s grace of forgiveness, mercy and healing must be equal to our willingness to offer forgiveness, mercy, peace and reconciliation to others. Was this not the message of the Parable of the “Merciless” Official in Matthew 18:21? As we forgive, so shall we be forgiven.
One of St. John Paul II’s most poignant and spiritual treatises was published at the beginning of his pontificate. It was named, “Dives et Misericordia”((Rich in Mercy). In the treatise he teaches the history, tradition and theology of God’s unconditional grace of mercy throughout human history, bestowed on a sinful humanity. At the heart of the treatise he asks a haunting question: “Is justice enough?” He reflects with an answer that, “it is not enough” since there are far too many examples of those doing justice while committing horrific acts of sin against neighbors and humanity.
While meditating on the Parable of the Prodigal Son, St. John Paul concludes that there must be a higher ideal than human justice, which is frequently flawed. The ideal he counsels is to live a full life in God’s Spirit, whereby Christians express and share an incarnational love, “more powerful than death and more powerful than sin.” This becomes the self-sacrificing love for the total well-being of others. Our Christ-centered love defines and inspires our acts of mercy and justice ( D.M. V.8).