“then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.” (Gen.2:7)
“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.” (Jn. 20:22-23)
The sacraments are the very heart of Christianity. They are the manifestation of Christ in the world. In them, Christ truly becomes present to us. They are the visible sign and the real symbol that are the very inward grace they signify. They signify the grace they cause, and cause the grace they signify. God’s grace is present efficaciously. (CCC 1084) They are our gateway to communion with God as well as our lighted guideposts to remain in communion. To stray from them is to risk walking in darkness and death. For, the seven sacraments are imbued with the sanctifying grace of Christ’s eternal act of redemption. In receiving the sacraments, that sanctifying grace of redemption is applied to our soul. It is the supernatural power that God uses to act in our lives. Sanctifying grace is what saves us. In the sacraments, Christ’s redemptive act is transmuted into a symbolic reality and transferred directly to our souls. This is miraculous and amazing. It is also the foundation of orthodoxy. The Church, as the administrator of the sacraments, is the holder and the dispensary of Christ’s miraculous grace. Although the priest acts in persona Christi, we know that it is truly Christ Himself, through the priest, who confers sanctifying grace. (CCC 1088) This sacramental grace allows us to enter into an immediate relationship with the living God.
Yet, the application of that redemptive grace varies from sacrament to sacrament. In Baptism, we gain our initial entry into Christ’s salvific action. Our souls are cleansed of Original Sin and incorporated into His death and Resurrection. It is our entrance into eternal life, and makes possible our lifelong communion with God. In the Eucharist, Christ’s redemptive grace actually comes to us in bodily form. The very body and blood of Jesus are made present physically. In consuming Him, we are continually sanctified and remade into His mystical body. He is literally our sustenance to eternal life. In Reconciliation, Christ’s sanctifying grace restores our relationship to God and the Church through the forgiveness of our sins. In our fallen human nature, still beset by frailty, weakness and concupiscence, we regularly regress back into sin. Christ knew our nature, and so, afforded us His sacrament of forgiveness. Repentance becomes linked to life. In the book of Genesis, it says God formed man from the ground and breathed life into him. The Hebrew word used for breath is רוח (ruach), which also means “spirit.” When God breathed into man, He made him a living spirit. We see that same word רוח repeated when the Resurrected Jesus appears to His disciples and He “breathes” (רוח again) on them, and thus, institutes the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Jesus is implicitly, or some might say, explicitly, linking His sacraments and the Holy Spirit with God’s life giving spirit at Creation. Immediately after He breathes on them, He says, “Receive the Holy Spirit,” and any sins you forgive are forgiven, and any you retain are retained. Jesus transfers His divine power, the power to forgive sins, to His Apostles. Now, with the capacity to forgive sins, the Church has another restorative power to heal our spirits. Just as Adam was, originally before the Fall, a living spirit, a pure man in communion with God, so too now, we can be restored as living spirits through our Redeemer. We pass from death into life as new creations. God again breathes into man and reanimates us. Through grace in the sacraments He not only brings us to life, but also, sustains that life with His on-going and unlimited forgiveness found in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
One of the most poignant stories in all of scripture is Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son. It is so poignant and moving because Jesus gives us a glimpse in detail of the immense and unconditional love God has for us. In the parable, a son takes his inheritance early from his father, goes off to a distant land, and spends it all on “dissolute living.” After he had nothing left and was dying from hunger, he finally comes to his senses. He decides to repent of his sins and go back to his father’s house. As the son says, “I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you.” (Lk.15:18) As the son is penitent and returning to his father’s house, we see the great mercy of the father: “But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.” (Lk.15:20) Even as the son was “still far off,” the father hurriedly went out to embrace him. And Jesus shows how great is the mercy of the father, who is superabundantly generous to the son. He says: “But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.” (Lk. 15:23-24) Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son is rich in the underlying truths of forgiveness and divine mercy. In the parable, we are the prodigal son, and God is the father. We, through Original Sin and committing sins during our lives, have lived lives unworthy of God, and consequently, squandered our inheritance, that is, eternal life. We were dead in our sins; outside of the Father’s house. Yet, when we recognize our own destitution and repent of our sins, God notices this, even while we are still struggling with sin “far off.” As soon as we repent and turn back to God, the Father embraces us immediately. As the son did, we must admit and confess our sins to Him with heartfelt sincerity. We should confess to God as he did, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you.” Then, look at the response of God to our repentance and confession. God immediately welcomes us back into His divine friendship and adorns us with grace. This is represented in clothing the son with his best robe, putting a ring on his finger, and sandals on his feet. God immediately calls for a celebration. He orders the fatted calf to be killed so they can have a great feast. Jesus gives us a revelation. He reveals God’s reaction to our repentance: He is ecstatic. Jesus mentions this in similar parables, on finding the lost coin and finding the lost sheep, that there is so much “joy in heaven,” even over one sinner who repents. (Lk. 15:7) We were dead in our sins, but when we repent, are made “alive again.” The prodigal son parable shows the compassion and forgiveness God offers us. It reveals the superabundant grace God waits to lavish upon us, if we but turn back to Him.
The Christian life is one of constantly turning away from sin and back towards God. The bible uses the Greek word “metanoia” [μετάνοια], or “a turning away” from one’s sins. We are called to a constant state of conversion. In Pope John Paul II’s encyclical, Dives in Misericordia, “Rich in Mercy,” he describes how when we come to see God’s tender mercy, we “can live only in a state of being continually converted to Him.” (DM, 13) This should be our “permanent attitude” and “state of mind.” Our consciousness becomes increasingly branded by our offenses against God, and this should lead us to repent. In the analogy of the prodigal son story, the son says to the father “I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” (Lk.15:19). As Pope John Paul II points out in the encyclical, we begin to realize our lost dignity in the severing of our relationship with the Father. He writes, “at the center of the prodigal son’s consciousness, the sense of lost dignity is emerging, the sense of that dignity that springs from the relationship of the son with the father.” (DM, 5) So too, should our consciousness reflect that deep connection between our sinfulness and lost dignity. Our sins sever us from our relationship with the Father, and we lose that inherent dignity as children of God. In the same way, turning away from sin, repenting, restores our dignity as sons and daughters of God. Jesus Himself preached this saying, “the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” (Mk.1:15) Jesus calls us to an interior conversion of the heart; a contrite heart moved to penance and renewal, in order to be reconciled to God. (CCC 1428) So that, in this way, we can “be holy and without blemish” (Eph. 5:27), and “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Mt.5:48)
But, how do we do this? The most effective, secure and efficacious way is to receive absolution in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. In the sacrament, we know that Jesus is truly present. We know it is an act that embodies our conversion, penance, confession, forgiveness and reconciliation. (CCC 1423-1424) These are Jesus’ requirements to regain eternal life. In Reconciliation, we receive sacramental grace with the absolute assurance of the forgiveness of our sins. In the Gospels, Jesus gives Peter and the Apostles the “keys of the kingdom” and the power to “bind and loose.” Jesus said to them, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” (Mt.16:19) As such, the Church has the authority directly from Christ to forgive sins. It is Christ, under the guise of the priest, there in the confessional who forgives our sins. How much better is life if we maintain that intimate friendship with God by regularly turning away from sin and turning towards God in the Sacrament of Reconciliation? Here, we find divine mercy. We are like the paralytic who Jesus healed, and whose sins He forgave. “He personally addresses every sinner: ‘My son, your sins are forgiven.’” (CCC 1484; Mk.2:5) What a wonderful assurance!