In the last column, we investigated how the sacrament of reconciliation was prefigured in the Old Testament so as to prepare us for what takes place in the New Testament. God wants us to live in intimate communion with him. However, we can choose to reject the gift of divine life, much like Adam and Eve. Mortal sin is just that, mortal – deadly. When we commit mortal sin, we die. Spiritual death is even more serious, and potentially longer lasting, than natural death.
Most of us have an unhealthy fear of the day we will meet our earthly demise. We should have a healthy fear of committing spiritual suicide. If we were to meet our earthly demise in this state, we will have chosen to exclude ourselves for all eternity from intimate communion with the Trinity. We will have been children who have definitively rejected their heavenly Father.
From the first mortal sin down to the most recent, God requires sorrow for sins, a firm resolve never to commit sin again, verbal confession of those sins, the receiving of absolution and the performing of a penance in order for there to be reconciliation with him. This did not change with the new covenant instituted by Christ. Actually, what was prefigured in the Old Testament is raised to the dignity of a sacrament in the New Testament.
When did this happen? “On the evening of that first day of the week, when the doors were locked, where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews…” (John 20:19). It occurred on the evening of the day of the Resurrection. On the most important day in the history of the world, Christ gave us the gift of mercy by instituting this sacrament. “…Jesus came and stood in their midst and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’ When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. The disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retained are retained.’” (John 20:19-23)
Jesus is speaking to the apostles, the priests of the new covenant. He sends them in the exact same manner as the Father has sent the Son. This is no small matter. The Father sent the Son at the very moment the Holy Spirit overshadowed Mary (cf. Luke 1:26-38). Then at Jesus’ Baptism there is a fuller outpouring of the Spirit, who descends like a dove on the Son, in whom the Father is well pleased (cf. Luke 3:21-22). Now God the Son whom the Father has sent gives the Spirit to the apostles. Then on Pentecost, after the Ascension, the Father and Son send a fuller outpouring of the Spirit, who descends like tongues of fire, on the apostles (cf. Acts 2:1-4). At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, after the baptism, he calls people to, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17). After Pentecost, Peter proclaims, “Repent and be baptized…for the forgiveness of sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38).
The Father and Son, in their mercy, entrusted to the apostles the “ministry of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:18). The apostles have God’s authority to forgive, or retain, sins. The only way that this can take place is if they actually hear the sin confessed. This gift is passed on to the successors of the apostles, the bishops, and their co-workers, the priests.
As in the Old Testament, the Father wants us to ‘fess up to our sins, with humble and contrite hearts.
As in the Old Testament there are consequences for sin. First, with regard to mortal sin, is that divine life is extinguished in the soul. Second, like Adam and Eve, we will no longer be allowed into paradise, and we are no longer able to eat of the fruit of the tree of life. Like Cain we will excluded from God’s all-holy presence. Like the consequences for the sins of Leviticus and Numbers, we are cut off from the assembly and are no longer able to eat of the flesh. Those in mortal sin exclude themselves from the People of God in the Mass (though one may be physically present), and are no longer able to eat of the fruit of the tree of life, the Eucharist, the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ. “Therefore whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will have to answer for the body and blood of the Lord. A person should examine himself…For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body, eats and drinks judgment on himself” (1 Corinthians 11:27-29).
The consequences for humbly confessing our sins are reconciliation with the Father, who brings about, in those who are spiritually dead, “a true spiritual resurrection” (CCC 1468). We are also reconciled to the church, thus restoring fraternal communion. This shows us that there truly is no such thing as a private sin. Sin affects our relationship with God and others, and reconciliation is needed.
Let us not be prideful but rush to the merciful judgment seat of Christ in the confessional. “God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble. So submit yourselves to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you…Begin to lament, to mourn, to weep…Humble yourselves before the Lord and he will exalt you” (James 4:6-10).
We, too, are called like those in Leviticus to humbly confess to a priest, who will remove the obstacle to reconciliation, namely sin. May we experience great joy and peace when we hear the words, “…I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (CCC 1449).