The first word uttered by the Risen Christ conveyed His special Easter gift to His Church: that word is “Peace”. It’s significant that the Lord’s commission to His Apostles to forgive sins in His name immediately follows that greeting. Our Lord tells the Apostles: “For those whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven; for those whose sins you retain, they are retained.” What’s the connection between the two statements?
Shalom, the Hebrew word Our Lord would have used that first Easter, carries within itself so many meanings that it cannot be adequately translated by a single word. Shalom means so many things: wholeness, harmony, unity, peace, right relationships. The word hearkens back to the Genesis accounts that depict God and man in an intimate union of friendship and love. But that union was destroyed by the sin of our first parents. From that day on, sin has always obstructed the movement of the human person towards God. To find true peace, that obstacle of sin must be removed. And here is the link between the Resurrection gift of peace and the Resurrection gift of forgiveness.
That link is maintained by the Church in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Many of the ancient Fathers of the Church refer to the Sacrament of Reconciliation as “The Second Baptism.” They recognized in this Sacrament the consoling possibility of a return to baptismal innocence, and the possibility to have a second chance if one is only willing to repent and begin again.
That reality is so important in the lives of human beings. When the famous writer and convert G.K. Chesterton was asked why he became a Catholic, he said very simply: “I became a Catholic to have my sins forgiven!” And that remains a very powerful reason for being part of the Catholic Church: to experience first-hand the compassion, the forgiveness, and the mercy of Almighty God.
On the Second Sunday of Easter 16 years ago Pope, now Saint John Paul II presided at the canonization of Sister Faustina Kowalska, and declared that this day should be known as Divine Mercy Sunday in honour of the saint’s lifelong effort to shed light on the mystery of Divine Mercy.
In 1905 Faustina Kowalska entered the Congregation of the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy in Warsaw. Because she was from a disadvantaged background and had very little formal education, Sister Faustina was assigned some of the most menial jobs in the convent. And because she wasn’t pretentious or prideful, she accepted these tasks happily, because she was humble and obedient to God’s will in her life. She didn’t need to see her name in lights. And perhaps it was because she was so humble and obedient that she was open to mystical experiences during which Our Lord asked her to become an Apostle of God’s Mercy. Sister Faustina had faith, and that faith was rewarded in an extraordinary way.
The focus of today’s gospel is faith, but faith is so much more than simply believing in the existence of God. Faith requires that we act upon and live our belief by keeping God’s laws and seeking to grow ever closer to Him. Being saved is not a stagnant, once-in-a-lifetime experience; rather it’s an ongoing response to the love and the will of God.
Despite our best efforts, and simply because we are human, we all fall short of this ideal; at times temptation and distraction becomes too much and we lapse into sin. By giving us the Sacrament of Penance, Christ allows us to reconcile ourselves to Him continually and to grow steadily in our faith. The Church and her priests, in the name of Jesus Christ, fulfill the divine commission by calling all members of the Body of Christ to repentance, reconciliation, and a more perfect union with Our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.
If Our Lord inaugurated His Resurrection appearances to His Apostles with the greeting of “Peace,” we also know that He began His public ministry with the invitation, or rather, the command to: “Repent”. The Sacrament of Penance is the ordinary means by which Catholics go through the process of repentance, in order to experience Christ’s peace. Or, as the confessor assures the penitent at the end of confession: “The Lord has freed you from your sins. Go in peace and sin no more.”