Sunday 19 February 2012
At the end of Luke's Gospel, after his Resurrection, Jesus sends out his Apostles "so that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in his name to all nations" (Luke 24:47).
Repentance and forgiveness belong together in the Church. We do not call people to repentance without at the same time assuring them of the promise of God's mercy. But neither do we proclaim a forgiveness that does not call for a deep and radical change of heart. By the power of God's Spirit, repentance leads to forgiveness.
Easter is the celebration of the new life we have through the forgiveness of sins which Jesus made possible for us in his Death and Resurrection. Therefore the Church prepares for this feast with a period of intensified penance, demonstrated in acts of mercy, acts of prayer, and acts of fasting. Although these are outward disciplines, they are also truly spiritual disciplines that reach deep into our hearts. On Ash Wednesday we hear the call from the prophet Joel: "Now, now—it is the Lord who speaks—come back to me with all your heart, fasting, weeping, mourning" (Joel 2:12).
Jesus died and rose again in order to liberate us from bondage to sin. In doing so, he did not simply give us a message of future forgiveness; he gave his Church the power to actually forgive the sins of those who repent here and now in his name. The Catechism says that priests and bishops:
"carry out this 'ministry of reconciliation', not only by announcing to men God's forgiveness merited for us by Christ, and calling them to conversion and faith; but also by communicating to them the forgiveness of sins in Baptism, and reconciling them with God and with the Church through the power of the keys, received from Christ" (CCC §981;
cf 2 Cor 5:18).
This is how St Augustine put it 1600 years ago:
"(The Church) has received the keys of the Kingdom of heaven so that, in her, sins may be forgiven through Christ's blood and the Holy Spirit's action. In this Church the soul (which is) dead through sin comes back to life in order to live with Christ, whose grace has saved us" (Sermon 214).
Just as Jesus died on the cross and rose again into new life, so the one who is joined to him in faith and Baptism dies with him in repentance and rises with him in forgiveness. The Church especially enacts the power to forgive in the sacrament of Penance (also known as the sacrament of Reconciliation or Confession).
It is precisely our faith in Easter, our faith in the true bodily Resurrection of our Lord Jesus, that gives us confidence to believe that our sins are forgiven. According to the Apostle St John, when Jesus appeared to the Twelve on the day
of his Resurrection, he gave the Holy Spirit to them, and told them that whosoever's sins they forgive, they are forgiven
(cf John 20:22-23).
Our acts of repentance therefore are based on a real and certain hope that God will forgive us for the sake of his Son, Jesus. Real repentance takes real courage. As the spiritual disciplines of Lent demonstrate, they go to the heart of our false securities and real insecurities. God calls us to repent of our lack of trust in him: hence he calls us to rely on prayer. God calls us to repent on our self-centredness: hence he calls us to give generously to those in real need. God calls us to realise that material things cannot satisfy our spiritual hunger: hence he calls us to fasting and abstinence.
But are we really ready to let go so easily? Are we ready to renounce our attachment to those sinful acts in our lives that have the greatest hold on us? Where would one find the courage to act in this way and to let this call to repentance touch those deepest places in our souls?
Again, St Augustine encourages us:
"Were there no forgiveness of sins in the Church, there would be no hope of life to come or eternal liberation. Let us thank God, who has given his Church such a gift" (Sermon 213).
St Augustine was right to see the gift of forgiveness as the gift of 'eternal liberation'. As the story of the temptation of Jesus reminds us, the evil one seeks to bind us in a prison of our own making. But Jesus defeated Satan because he is the truly free One, and the One who can make us truly free also. Only forgiveness can set us free from sin. Only forgiveness gives us hope of life in all its fullness.
Is there any sin that God will not forgive? The Catechism (§982) declares that:
"There is no offence, however serious, that the Church cannot forgive. There is no one, however wicked and guilty, who may not confidently hope for forgiveness, provided his repentance is honest. Christ who died for all men desires that in his Church the gates of forgiveness should always be open to anyone who turns away from sin" (cf Matt 18:21-22).
Some of you may have heard of the 'unforgivable sin' (cf Mark 3:29). No one who trusts in Jesus for their forgiveness and whose "repentance is honest" need fear that they are guilty of such a sin. Blessed John Paul II taught that "there are no limits to the mercy of God". Only the one "who deliberately refuses to accept his mercy by repenting, rejects the forgiveness of his sins and the salvation offered by the Holy Spirit" (cf John Paul II, Dominum et Vivificantem, 46).
The Resurrection of Jesus means that there is hope for all of us, even if we judge ourselves (as St Paul himself did in 1 Timothy 1:15) to be the greatest of sinners. The path of repentance leads always and unfailingly to the joy of forgiveness. Yes, it is a road that takes courage. Yes, it is a road that requires great discipline. It is a road that can only be walked in pure and simple trust, keeping our eyes on the Lord who shows us the way. Those who die with Christ will rise with him.
And so the season of Lent, now opening up before us once again, is a season of great joy and refreshment for the soul who enters into it. The Church, in obedience to her Lord, preaches repentance and the forgiveness of sins to all people and all nations. The invitation is open to all. The way is narrow, to be sure, but the way is wide open to all who hear the call: "Repent and believe in the Gospel".
Photo by CNS/James Baca.