The Victory of Mercy and Conquest of Sin
Victory is an accomplishment. Sports. War. Success. Winning. But there’s one victory that’s not. Victory over misery, suffering, evil, sin and death is beyond the reach of effort. Neither intelligence nor competence, neither vision nor noble ideals nor plans, can resolve sin, suffering and death. Not even virtue. Ever since man’s fall, per Genesis 3, every human endeavor, no matter how noble, contains within itself the beginning of its demise. Birth begins death. We’re born with a foot in the grave. Success creates failure. The Tower of Babel, per Genesis 11, is the great prophecy of man’s fate in time. Some things are resolved only by divine paradox: God does what man must do but can’t, and man does what God must do but can’t. That’s the enigma of Jesus Christ.
“Beyond our grasp, he chose to come within our grasp. Existing before time began, he began to exist at a moment in time. Lord of the universe, he hid his infinite glory and took the nature of a servant. Incapable of suffering as God, he did not refuse to be a man, capable of suffering. Immortal, he chose to be subject to the laws of death” (Pope St. Leo the Great, 5th century).
Sin created this paradox. That’s why the Exsultet of the Easter Vigil Mass calls Adam’s sin a “happy fault” (felix culpa). That’s why the Son of God became Man so that man might once again share in God’s divine beauty. Flashback for a minute. Recall the angel’s words to a dreaming Joseph after the Holy Spirit conceived Jesus in Mary. The angel said the child will be named Jesus because, “He will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). That’s the Paradox’s mission: to feel the darkness, shame, guilt and abandonment by God that is brought on by all sins ever committed and to be committed, from time’s beginning to end. Jesus felt as if he had personally committed all sins, even the worst, and yet remained perfectly innocent. Feelings aside, Jesus had no actual guilt. What does innocent suffering and death accomplish? The resurrection of the dead. Christ’s personal resurrection was only a prelude to what all who are “in him” shall experience: the glory of new life.
As for Jesus, he had a few more things to do before ascending to heaven, the first of which is recorded in today’s Gospel. He appears to ten fearful Apostles. Passing through walls and locked doors, he says, “Peace be with you… Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained” (John 20:23). Jesus gave his Apostles – the first priests of the New Covenant, whom he consecrated at the Last Supper (read John 17) – the authority to forgive sins in his name. Christ established the sacrament of Confession.
Two Sacraments forgive mortal sins: Baptism and Confession. Baptism forgives all sins, original and actual. Confession forgives sins committed after Baptism, most importantly mortal sins, if confessed honestly and with regret. Baptism and Confession heal. They’re sacraments of Mercy. They apply the cross’ healing power to us personally, individually and by name. They prepare us for Holy Communion: the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of the risen Christ. Forgiveness of sins prepares us for the outpouring of the Father’s infinite, intimate and unconditional love, received in Holy Communion.
Christ’s death and resurrection left us a whole “system” of salvation in the sacraments. These are the main means by which we experience the fullness of God’s mercy. St. John says that Christ comes to us through “water and blood.” “Not through water alone,” he says, “but through water and blood” (1 John 5:6). Recall that water and blood flowed from Christ’s side, when pierced by a lance. The water represents Baptism. The Blood represents the Eucharist. These two sacraments – along with Confession – have something in common. When received properly, the risen Christ makes a perfect act of love in the soul. The Father looks upon the soul as if it were his actual, eternally begotten Son. In Baptism, Confession and the Eucharist, the Father’s perfect act of love not only forgives sins, but it empowers the soul to “see God” and the body to rise from the dead. That’s the effect of mercy. It empowers us to become holy in this life, to see God at death, and to rise from the dead at time’s end.
When the grace of these sacraments is received, the “sting of death” (1 Corinthians 15:55) – or judgment – is removed. And the soul becomes fertile ground for the life-giving power of the Holy Spirit, whom we receive more deeply in Confirmation. St. Paul says, “We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive recompense, according to what he did in the body, whether good or evil” (2 Corinthians 5:10). Christ said, “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will render an account of every careless word they speak” (Matthew 12:36). In other words, there will be judgment day. In fact, two judgments: first a particular judgment at death and then a Last Judgment, when the full extent of all good and evil ever done will be revealed. But this “sting” of judgment is removed by the power of the resurrection, which comes through the sacraments.
Fear of judgment is an effect of guilt. “They heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden” (Genesis 3:8). Mortal sin makes one feel cut off from God and others – even if one doesn’t explicitly perceive this. Mortal sin inclines a soul to blame God and others. “The man said [to God], ‘The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me from the tree, and I ate’” (Genesis 3:12). “The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God.’ They are corrupt, they have committed abominable deeds” (Psalm 14:1). The “fool” of Psalm 14 is not an atheist. He’s just someone who lives as if God doesn’t exist. Why? He can’t face God. Guilt makes one feel like everyone’s a judge, even when they’re not. A guilty conscience perceives a judge behind every tree and two more behind every rock. “The wicked flee though no one pursues, but the righteous are as bold as a lion” (Proverbs 28:1). But confession kills guilt and releases the life-giving power and boldness of the Holy Spirit. In a sense, one becomes a “child” again (Matthew 18:3). That’s the victory of mercy and the conquest of sin.
A Word from Saint Augustine
I speak to you who have just been reborn in baptism, my little children in Christ, you who are the new offspring of the Church, gift of the Father, proof of Mother Church’s fruitfulness. All of you who stand fast in the Lord are a holy seed, a new colony of bees, the very flower of our ministry and fruit of our toil, my joy and my crown. It is the words of the Apostle that I address to you: Put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh and its desires, so that you may be clothed with the life of him whom you have put on in this sacrament. You have all been clothed with Christ by your baptism in him. There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor freeman; there is neither male nor female; you are all one in Christ Jesus.
Such is the power of this sacrament: it is a sacrament of new life which begins here and now with the forgiveness of all past sins, and will be brought to completion in the resurrection of the dead. You have been buried with Christ by baptism into death in order that, as Christ has risen from the dead, you also may walk in newness of life.
You are walking now by faith, still on pilgrimage in a mortal body away from the Lord; but he to whom your steps are directed is himself the sure and certain way for you: Jesus Christ, who for our sake became man. For all who fear him he has stored up abundant happiness, which he will reveal to those who hope in him, bringing it to completion when we have attained the reality which even now we possess in hope.
This is the octave day of your new birth. Today is fulfilled in you the sign of faith that was prefigured in the Old Testament by the circumcision of the flesh on the eighth day after birth. When the Lord rose from the dead, he put off the mortality of the flesh; his risen body was still the same body, but it was no longer subject to death. By his resurrection he consecrated Sunday, or the Lord’s day. Though the third after his passion, this day is the eighth after the Sabbath, and thus also the first day of the week.
And so your own hope of resurrection, though not yet realized, is sure and certain, because you have received the sacrament or sign of this reality, and have been given the pledge of the Spirit. If, then, you have risen with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your hearts on heavenly things, not the things that are on earth. For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, your life, appears, then you too will appear with him in glory.