The Sacrament of Mercy

Sacraments are sensible signs, established by Jesus, that result in an outpouring of the grace signified. Sacramental grace is real, as real as a thing can be because it is God's own Life. Among the sacraments is one that is exquisitely beautiful, wonderful and amazing – yet profoundly ignored and forgotten: the sacrament of Reconciliation, also known as Confession or Penance. I sin, I sin again, and again and again, repeatedly. I hate my sins, because they destroy me, dragging me down, further away from God. Yet, despite how many, many times I sin, how many times I turn away from my beloved Lord, He comes back to me and lifts me up again. It seems I can’t ruin our relationship; He simply won’t allow it. He forgives me repeatedly, without limit. This sacrament, the seat of Mercy, is a beautiful thing; it is God taking me back again, showing me His true unconditional love.

It is our belief that Jesus established this sacrament on the very day of His Resurrection.

On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being shut where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, "Peace be with you." When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you." And 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; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained." (Jn 20:19-23)

It is very fitting that this sacrament which raises us from spiritual death to life was created on the day the Lord Himself rose from the dead. Let’s consider this passage. The Apostles are afraid, because they have lost their Lord, much as we lose Him when we sin. They have closed the doors out of fear, but that will not stop our Lord, who comes in despite ourselves, greeting us with soothing words of peace. This is the very icon of God’s Mercy: Peace; there is no more fear, no anxiety, no more are we alone because the Lord has come, even from the dead.

Jesus does something profound: He breathes on His Apostles. His message is they are “receiving” the Holy Spirit, they now have the power to forgive sins, and so they are sent out with this mission. His words are clear enough, but why breathe on them? Let’s go back and see the first breath of God.

Then the LORD God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being. (Gn 2:7)

God’s breath gives life. He breathes on dirt and it becomes a living being. The OT often references breath as synonymous with life; it makes sense, after all, as living things breathe. The breath of God is special, though: it generates life. The Hebrew word “ruach” means breath/wind/spirit. The “spirit of God” mentioned in the OT is Ruach Elohim in Hebrew. But this same word of spirit also means wind and breath. When we consider that breathing is a flow of air in and out of the lungs, we can imagine how wind and breath are similar and why they share the same word. But giving this word the same meaning as spirit gives us insight into what spirit really is. Like the breath, spirit is a principle of life. Like the wind, the spirit moves, flows, either gently or powerfully. The Spirit of God, which is the Holy Spirit, is the principle of spiritual life; He moves gently, and with power. When we speak of grace, we are really speaking of the Holy Spirit, moving into and within my soul. When Jesus breathed on His Apostles, He sent that same Spirit into them which brings God’s Life. He tasked them with delivering that same Spirit of Life to others, that vivifying Spirit that resuscitates spiritually dead souls in God’s mercy.

Let’s look at two other examples of God’s breath bringing new life. Our first example is the famous Dry Bones prophecy of Ezekiel:

The hand of the LORD was upon me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the LORD, and set me down in the midst of the valley; it was full of bones. And he led me round among them; and behold, there were very many upon the valley; and lo, they were very dry. And he said to me, "Son of man, can these bones live?" And I answered, "O Lord GOD, thou knowest." Again he said to me, "Prophesy to these bones, and say to them, O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD. Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones: Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. And I will lay sinews upon you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the LORD." So I prophesied as I was commanded; and as I prophesied, there was a noise, and behold, a rattling; and the bones came together, bone to its bone. And as I looked, there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, "Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, son of man, and say to the breath, Thus says the Lord GOD: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live." So I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood upon their feet, an exceedingly great host. Then he said to me, "Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. Behold, they say, 'Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are clean cut off.' Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I will open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you home into the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land; then you shall know that I, the LORD, have spoken, and I have done it, says the LORD." (Ez 37:1-14)

It’s almost unnecessary to comment on this text as an image of our sacrament of Reconciliation; the symbolism is overwhelmingly clear. Corpses – dried skeletons, even – come back to life, when given the breath of God, the Spirit of God, the Life of God. This merciful Spirit will raise us from our graves and bring us home.

Our second example is a story of the great prophet Elijah:

After this the son of the woman, the mistress of the house, became ill; and his illness was so severe that there was no breath left in him. And she said to Elijah, "What have you against me, O man of God? You have come to me to bring my sin to remembrance, and to cause the death of my son!" And he said to her, "Give me your son." And he took him from her bosom, and carried him up into the upper chamber, where he lodged, and laid him upon his own bed. And he cried to the LORD, "O LORD my God, hast thou brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I sojourn, by slaying her son?" Then he stretched himself upon the child three times, and cried to the LORD, "O LORD my God, let this child's soul come into him again." And the LORD hearkened to the voice of Elijah; and the soul of the child came into him again, and he revived. (1 Kgs 17:17-22)

The context is clear: the dead is restored to life. Note that his death is described in terms of his breath: “there was no breath left in him.” Then, his resurrection is described in terms of his soul: “the soul of the child came into him again.” The underlined text, “he stretched himself” is curious, though. How does this tie in with our analysis so far? The Greek Septuagint translation of the OT gives us some insight into how the ancient rabbis understood this phrase; let’s see what that verse in Greek says:

And Eliu cried aloud, and said, Alas, O Lord, the witness of the widow with whom I sojourn, thou hast wrought evil for her in slaying her son. And he breathed on the child thrice, and called on the Lord, and said, O Lord my God, let, I pray thee, the soul of this child return to him. (III Kgs 17:20-21)

The Alexandrian rabbis who made this translation in the third century B.C. believed Elijah had actually breathed on the boy three times. With this understanding, Elijah is here an OT type of the NT priest, who, following Jesus’ direction on that first Easter evening, “breathes” the Spirit of God on us in the sacrament. Of note is that Elijah breathes three times, a Trinitarian image aligning his breath with that of God. Likewise our priests absolve us from our sins, “in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit,” aligning his words of absolution with those of God.

We can conclude that this sacrament is an especially beautiful one, adorned in images of resurrection and God’s own Life. Why, then, do so few take advantage of it? The answer is clear: because we hate to reveal our faults to another person, a priest; it feels embarrassing, shameful and sets the priest on a judgment seat over me. Why can’t I just confess my sins to God in the secrecy of my heart? The answer is that God chose a different path for us. Grace comes through the sacraments and the sacraments are liturgical, that is, public.

Many claim that Scripture nowhere states that we must confess our sins to a priest. Yet, how can priests carry out the apostolic calling above, to forgive some sins and retain others, unless he first knows the sins and the circumstances of the penitent? Meanwhile, others point to Jas 5:16 (“Confess your sins to one another…”) as proof of confession; yet this text must be understood in its context, which is another sacrament, that of Anointing of the Sick. We should not look for some perfect proof of confession in Scripture, because Scripture does not work that way. There is enough evidence in the above text from John’s Gospel to believe that confession to a priest is part of this sacrament. To believe otherwise is to think the Church got it wrong. Many Christians do think Catholics got it wrong, that we strayed from Jesus’ intent. But what did the early Christians think?

One of the very earliest documents of Christianity, outside of the New Testament, is The Didache. It was written about the year 70 A.D.

"Confess your sins in church, and do not go up to your prayer with an evil conscience. This is the way of life. “ (Didache 4:14)

Sins are to be confessed “in church”. But a church is simply a place where the liturgy is celebrated. We can conclude that confession of sins was a liturgical event, even in 70 A.D. A bit later (248 A.D.), we read from the priest-theologian Origin:

“… albeit hard and laborious [is] the remission of sins through penance, when the sinner . . . does not shrink from declaring his sin to a priest of the Lord and from seeking medicine, after the manner of him who say, ‘I said, "To the Lord I will accuse myself of my iniquity"’" (Homilies on Leviticus 2:4).

There are many such texts from early Christianity indicating that confession of one’s sins was a liturgical event. Yet, the priests and bishops have gone out of their way to help us overcome this embarrassment we feel when confessing. The priest cannot see us through the confessional screen; he has taken an oath to die before he divulges our secrets (and some have taken it that far). We are assured of our privacy, that we are confessing to the Lord alone. On the other hand, what do I do with these feelings of embarrassment? First, remember the priest has heard it all – nothing I say will be anything more than the same old sins he’s heard so many times before. Believe it or not, this is true no matter how awful or strange is my confession. Second, the dreaded “judgment” of the priest is only regarding my contrition; if I am clearly not contrite, then he probably won’t absolve me. But if I am a typical confessor, he assumes I am contrite and does not judge me. He does not judge me, because his is the Mercy Seat, not the Judgment Seat. So what do I have to fear? What is stopping me from enjoying this beautiful sacrament of peace?

"Peace be with you." When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, "Peace be with you.” (Jn 20:19-21)

Peace. The end of the conflict, the end of all fear. The gentle breeze of the Holy Spirit, bringing power from on high to revive us and bring us new life. God’s peace be with you, Friends.