Divine Mercy; Human Vessels

Second Sunday of Easter

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The definition of sacrament given in the Catechism is, “An efficacious sign of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us through the work of the Holy Spirit.” This means Jesus is the origin of all seven of the Church’s sacraments. What we read in the gospel reading for this Sunday is Jesus instituting the sacrament of Reconciliation, and entrusting it to the Church.

One week after the Resurrection — and so one week after that first Easter Sunday — Jesus appeared in the midst of the Apostles. He breathed on them, and spoke the following words: “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.

Whenever I read this passage from John’s gospel, I am reminded of a different episode in Jesus’ life, recorded in Matthew 9:1-8. People bring a paralytic man to Jesus, who tells him, “Courage, child, your sins are forgiven.” The scribes who hear this become outraged because only God can forgive sins. They believe Jesus is blaspheming. They are, of course, correct in that only God can forgive sins. But they don’t recognize Jesus’ divinity.

To prove that He has the divine authority to forgive sins, Jesus heals the man’s legs. Before He does this, Jesus says it is “that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” The gospel tells us that the crowds who witnessed this miracle “were struck with awe and glorified God who had given such authority to human beings.”

Jesus demonstrates to us that He has the authority to forgive sins. Our gospel this Sunday shows Jesus passing this authority on to the Church. “Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.”

Before He gives the Apostles this authority, Jesus tells them, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” God sent His only Son into the world to reconcile sinners to Himself. That is His mission. The Church has the same mission.

Non-Catholics will sometimes ask, “Why do you confess your sins to a priest? Why not go right to God in prayer?” The answer is found in this gospel reading. We confess our sins to priests because Jesus set it up that way.

Certainly we can, and should, repent of our sins directly to God in prayer. There is nothing wrong with that. But God has chosen as part of His design for salvation to use human beings as conduits of His grace. He conveys His mercy to us through human vessels. This is what a sacrament is.

Why would God do such a thing? It is astonishing to think about — God’s almighty and infinite grace passing through limited and faulty sinners. God delights to work through His creation, and especially through weak human beings.

Part of the reason, I think, is because God knows we need this person-to-person contact. We are spiritual creatures, but we are also bodily creatures. We need to feel the water of baptism pouring over our heads to know we are reborn. We need to taste the bread and wine when we receive the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist. And we need to hear those precious words spoken to us by Jesus through His minister in the confessional: “I absolve you of your sins in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”

I have been going to Confession for 18 years as a Catholic, most of my adult life. And I never tire of hearing those words. I find comfort in them each and every time I exit the confessional, knowing that God has once more poured His healing grace upon me through the humanity of His servant, ordained to minister in His name.

Why did God establish the sacrament of Reconciliation? He did it for us, so that we may be assured of His mercy in every generation. Thanks be to God.