Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of Date, 2003
Go in peace:
Lenten reflections by Archbishop Thomas Collins
By ARCHBISHOP THOMAS COLLINS
Jesus was at supper with people who were confident of their righteousness. A woman who was known to be a public sinner heard that Jesus was nearby, and came in and wept, and anointed his feet. She knew that he, the sinless one, would have mercy on her. She did not hesitate to approach him.
When the righteous complained, Jesus said: "Her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little." And he said to her, "Your sins are forgiven." Then those who were at table with him began to say among themselves, "Who is this, who even forgives sins?" And he said to the woman, "Your faith has saved you; go in peace" (Luke 7:47-50).
In the Gospels, we frequently find an encounter between a sinner and Jesus. To the paralyzed man Jesus says: "Take heart, my son, your sins are forgiven" (Matthew 9:2; see Luke 5:17-26). To the woman caught in adultery, when he is alone with her after her accusers have gone away, and there is no one left to condemn her, Jesus says: "Neither do I condemn you; go, and do not sin again" (John 8:11).
Jesus, who begins his public ministry with the stern call "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" (Matthew 4:17), is nonetheless known as one who gently reaches out to sinners. The righteous say: "This man receives sinners, and eats with them" (Luke 15:2). Jesus says, "There is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents" (Luke 15:10).
In his parables, Jesus holds up as an example the tax collector who says "God, be merciful to me, a sinner" (Luke 18:13), and in the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32), he shows us the journey from sin, through repentance, to absolution by our loving Father.
In the many such passages in the Gospels we are reminded of how easily we turn from the love of God and neighbour, but also how we need to repent and return to God. Partly, this requires a challenge that will break through our wilfulness, and Jesus often issues such a challenge, as did John the Baptist and the prophets before him. But we also see how the individual sinner experiences an internal conversion, through the gentle action of God's grace, which draws the sinner to the source of life, as sunlight brings new life to the fields.
In the Gospel, there are two movements in the experience of forgiveness, an internal and an external one. The prodigal son, reflecting on his life, makes a personal decision to return to his father, and the sinners of the Gospel decide to draw near to Jesus. That is the internal response to God's grace. It is contrition for sin, leading to conversion.
But there is a further movement, an external human action, as the sinner experiences in a direct, tangible way the reality of divine forgiveness. The father runs down the road, and embraces the son. Jesus says to the sinner: "Your sins are forgiven. Go in peace." At that moment, the sinner experiences absolution, and is forgiven.
The absolution is sacramental, that is, it is an experience of the action of God in a tangible way. In Jesus, the fundamental "sacrament," God has entered our world. "The Word became flesh, and dwelt amongst us" (John 1:14). God has allowed us to experience his divine presence in a way adapted to our humanity. This is a wondrous gift.
In Jesus - Immanuel, God-with-us - God speaks, and heals, and gives life, and forgives. The sinners of the Gospel who experienced the inward action of God's grace that led them to contrition and conversion also experienced the sacramental gift of absolution when they approached Jesus and heard his words: "Your sins are forgiven."
This gracious gift of sacramental forgiveness is not restricted to those few sinners who were able to reach out to Jesus in Galilee 2,000 years ago. After the resurrection, Jesus 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).
Jesus continues to give life to his disciples down through the ages, in the community of faith, and allows us to share in the sacramental experience of forgiveness that we see in the Gospels. In this series of Lenten articles I will consider how this happens, especially through the celebration of the sacrament of Reconciliation.
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