‘I believe in the forgiveness of sins.’ We say that in the Creed. And tonight we’re proving we mean what we say.
At the very beginning of Lent, I was struck by a reading from Pope Leo the Great. He said: ‘What’s special about Easter is that it’s when the whole Church can rejoice at the forgiveness of sins.’ Yes, Jesus ‘was put to death for our sins and rose again for our justification’ (Rom 4:25). That’s what we celebrate at Easter. That’s what Christ brings, ‘the forgiveness of sins’ (Eph 1:7 etc.). It’s the best of reasons for becoming a Christian. It’s what we’ll want on our death-bed. When he was dying, the famous British soldier of World War II, Field Marshall Montgomery, felt such alarm that he asked a friend to come over. ‘I’ve got to go meet God and explain all those men I killed at Alamein.’
‘I believe in the forgiveness of sins.’
Often in the Gospels, Jesus forgives sins. There’s the paralytic let down through the roof: ‘my son, your sins are forgiven’. There’s the woman with the bad name in town, who covers his feet with kisses and tears and perfume, and is told, ‘Your sins are forgiven.’ There’s the story of the prodigal son who comes back with an admission of guilt on his lips, and is fold in the arms of his father. There’s the woman caught in adultery. ‘Has no one condemned you?’ ‘No one, Lord.’ ‘Neither do I condemn you; go, and do not sin any more.’
It’s the experience of these people we can share tonight, and every time we go to confession.
This is something Pope Francis said a couple of months ago: ‘Everyone say to himself: ‘When was the last time I went to confession?’ And if it has been a long time, don’t lose another day! Go, the priest will be good. And Jesus, (will be) there, and Jesus is better than the priests – Jesus receives you. He will receive you with so much love! Be courageous, and go to confession.’
I also remember something a monk said in a homily on Jesus’ words to the woman caught in adultery. ‘He didn’t say these words lightly. He said them at the cost of his life.’ It was his claim to forgive sins that perhaps more than anything scandalised his enemies and led them to condemn him to death. And yet through his death our sins are forgiven. ‘This is the chalice of my blood, he said the night before, the blood of the new and eternal covenant which will be poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.’ In the Garden of Gethsemane and on the Cross, the full force of human evil fell on him. And he prayed, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’ In his passion he lived out a love of God and man stronger than all the accumulated hatred of God and man from the world’s beginning to its end. He was made sin for us, says St Paul. He identified himself with it. In a sense, he made a great confession on our behalf, and his Resurrection became our absolution.
And every time we approach the Sacrament of Reconciliation, all this enters our life. We bring the love of our sorrow for sin and the Father lifts us up into his grace.
‘I believe in the forgiveness of sins,’ we say in the Creed.
Through the death and resurrection of Christ, the broken relationship has been restored. The Iron Curtain, the Berlin Wall, of our separation has fallen. And we can live in the sunlight of God.
And this astonishing gift lives on. ‘Through the ministry of the Church, may God give you pardon and peace,’ says the priest. Through the ministry of the Church. On the evening of Easter, the risen One came through the closed doors. ‘Peace be with you’, he said to the apostles. Then he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’
And so, generation after generation, the successors of those apostles in the Upper Room and those priests who help them carry on this ministry of reconciliation. They carry it on, first, by proclaiming the forgiveness of sins won by Christ and calling to conversion and faith, and then by bringing this gift of forgiveness into our lives through the Sacraments.
So the gates of forgiveness are always open. ‘Our Father never tires of loving, Pope Francis said the other day, and his eyes never grow weary of watching the road to his home to see if the son who left and was lost is returning’ (28 March 2014).
At the Easter Vigil, there’ll be adults here and many more throughout the world, who’ll walk through the gate of baptism. And there, says the Catechism, ‘all sins are forgiven, original sin and all personal sin, as well as all punishment for sin’ (1263). There will be nothing between them and God, them and heaven.
And when we, with the sins we’ve committed since our baptism, go through the gate of Sacrament of Penance or Reconciliation, what will happen? We are sorry for what we have done and want to avoid our sins for the future; we name what we have done to the priest, simply, honestly, and at least as regards unconfessed grave sins, completely; we are ready to make reparation and do works of reparation. And what happens? We know we can’t just give ourselves forgiveness. We’ve come to ask Jesus for it. We have opened our lives to the power of the Cross. And what happens? We are restored to God’s grace and friendship. We are reconciled with the Father and with the Church, the whole Body of Christ. We are spiritually resurrected. We are at peace and consoled. We are secretly strengthened for the Christian battle, our warfare with the powers of evil. The Catechism says all this and more.
‘I am the vine; you are the branches’. Spring time is all around us. Thanks to the forgiveness of sins, it can be in us as well. ‘Let us thank God who has given his Church such a gift’ (St Augustine). Let us believe in the forgiveness of sins and the mercy of God that makes it possible!
St Mary’s Cathedral, Aberdeen