One of the most moving experiences of forgiveness found in Scripture is when Jesus — on the night of his resurrection and the following Sunday as well — appeared before his frightened disciples who were huddled behind locked doors. These appearances are recounted in the Gospels of Luke, chapter 24, and John, chapter 20. Even though the disciples had betrayed, denied and abandoned him, Jesus, clearly bearing the wounds of his cruel death, speaks tender words: “Peace be with you.”
Jesus says this not once or twice, but three times assuring the disciples that he still loved them and that they were not to be afraid. After his greeting Jesus gives (breaths on) them the gift of the Holy Spirit and sends them out as bearers of God’s forgiveness: “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained” (Jn 20:22-23).
The Catholic Church understands this episode as the basis for the sacrament of reconciliation or penance. In fact, the Sunday after Easter is known as “Divine Mercy Sunday.” He who bore the nail wounds of hatred and sin, had empowered the Apostles and their successors (bishops) and their assistants (priests) to bestow forgiveness and reconciliation to peoples of all nations for all time.
The power of the sacrament of reconciliation is rooted ultimately in Jesus’ saving death and resurrection — the price of our salvation that has broken open the fullness of mercy, salvation and reconciliation. This sacrament is rooted in a forgiving Jesus who bestowed tender words of peace on his frightened friends on the night of his resurrection. The power of gestures heals.
Jesus’ healing and merciful words of peace in that locked room 2,000 years ago continue in the sacrament of reconciliation which makes God’s mercy a tangible, living experience that forgives our personal sins and heals our spirits. Just as the Apostles experienced Jesus’ peace and forgiveness, we, too, experience personally, tangibly God’s same mercy and peace through the sacrament of penance. It is the sacrament of the merciful Father’s embrace (cf. Lk 15:11-32) who rejoices in our return and assures us again and again that we are God’s children. As the father had embraced and forgiven his prodigal son, so, too, did the father desire that the elder brother should forgive and embrace his wayward brother (Lk 15:31-32) for he always remains his brother. It is Jesus’ desire that as we receive forgiveness again and again through the sacrament of reconciliation, we, too, might become merciful ourselves. Says Jesus, “Be merciful just as your Father is merciful” (Lk 6:36).
One powerful psychological effect of the sacrament of reconciliation is that we know that we have been forgiven. Through the gestures and words of this sacrament, we see (and feel) the extended hand of the bishop or priest; we hear the words of absolution (forgiveness); we know that God has granted his pardon and peace.
For me, personally, it is a wonderful experience as I leave the confessional: I feel, at times, that the weight of the world has been taken off my shoulders. What a feeling! What a grace! Often we bear our souls to the bartender, the psychologist and at the beauty salon; we unload our troubles on others. The same happens in the sacrament of penance, but at a much deeper level: we unload before an unworthy representative of God and the church; the sin is named; guidance is given; and, in turn, we hear these words: “…through the ministry of the church, may God grant you pardon and peace. I absolve you of your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
Like on the evening of his resurrection, Christ tangibly and verbally touches us: we are freed from sin, we receive peace and joy, and we, in turn, can bring that mercy to others. As we are healed, we, in turn, become healers.
The words of a beloved prayer ring out powerfully through this sacrament: “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon…O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console, to be understood as to understand, to be loved as to love; for it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; it is in dying to self that we are born to eternal life.”