Before reading this chapter, read slowly and reflectively the Eucharistic Prayer of Reconciliation II in the appendix, noting the words or phrases that speak to you about reconciliation. What does this say to you about the Eucharist as a sacrament of reconciliation?
What the Liturgy Teaches Us
The Council of Vatican II states
The liturgy is the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; it is also the font from which all her power flows. (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, 10)
The Catechism of the Catholic Church quotes this passage and adds
It (the liturgy) is therefore the privileged place for catechizing the people of God. (Catechism, St Paul Press, Homebush NSW, 1994, No.1074)
This number from the Catechism states very firmly that not only do we learn from the liturgy, but the liturgy is also the ‘privileged place’ for learning. What then do we learn from the liturgy about the Eucharist as a sacrament of reconciliation?
The prayer over the offerings for the ninth Sunday of Ordinary Time says
Trusting in your compassion, O Lord, we come eagerly with our offerings to your sacred altar, that, through the purifying action of your grace, we may be cleansed by the very mysteries we serve.
In the missal there is a Mass for the Forgiveness of Sins. The Prayer after Communion says,
Grant us, merciful God, that, receiving in this gift the forgiveness of sins, we may be able by your grace to avoid sinning from now on and to serve you in sincerity of heart.
The Prayer after Communion from the same Mass says
… by the gifts we have shared forgive us our sins.
Some of the prayers over the offerings and Prayers after Communion during Lent express this belief. For example, the Prayer over the Offerings for the second Sunday of Lent says, ‘May this sacrifice . . . cleanse us of our faults . . .’
Prosper of Aquitane (about 390-455) said, ‘What we pray is what we believe.’ But do we really believe what we pray?
In the Mass we frequently ask for forgiveness: in the Penitential Rite, the Gloria, the Lord’s Prayer, the Lamb of God. At the very heart of the Eucharist, Jesus is quoted as saying at the Last Supper
. . . this is the Chalice of my Blood . . . It will be shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.
Perhaps these words from Matthew’s gospel were included in the Eucharistic Prayer by the early Church to remind us that when we celebrate the Eucharist with sincerity our sins are forgiven.
For Matthew, ‘the forgiveness of sins’ was a primary purpose of the Eucharist. (Eugene LaVerdiere SSS, The Eucharist in the New Testament and the Early Church, The Liturgical Press, 1996, p.66)
John Quinn SJ sums up the history of the use of the Eucharist as a sacrament of forgiveness in this way:
The doctrine of the remission of sins conferred by the Eucharist has had a long and varied history of use and neglect in the Church. Granted that the forgiveness of sins is not the chief object of the Eucharist . . . Christ made the forgiveness of sins an essential dimension of it. (Worship, Vol. 42. No.5. 1968)
The Council of Trent in the sixteenth century made the following statement which sounds astonishing to our ears
. . . the holy Council teaches that this (Mass) is truly propitiatory and has this effect that if, contrite and penitent, with sincere heart and upright faith, with fear and reverence, we draw nigh to God, ‘we obtain mercy and find grace in seasonable aid’. (Hebrews 4:16) For, appeased by this sacrifice, the Lord grants the grace and gift of penitence, and pardons even the gravest crimes and sins. (Cited in W. Bausch, A New Look at the Sacraments, Twenty-Third Publications 1977, p.157. Emphasis mine)
At this time in history, our Church leaders strongly encourage the use of the one to one sacrament of reconciliation for the forgiveness of serious sin and we must respect this direction. The sacrament of reconciliation has its own unique qualities: it requires the penitent to put into words the sin requiring forgiveness and this helps to bring clarity to the offence; it also gives us the opportunity to receive some spiritual guidance from the priest.
However, it has always been the belief of the Church that the less serious sins (venial) do not require the sacrament of reconciliation but are forgiven by private prayer, by doing good deeds and, certainly, through full participation in the Eucharist. It seems to me there is a potential for the Eucharist here that is still to be fully realised, a treasure chest yet to be opened up.
Penance is oriented to the celebration of the Eucharist, which is the sacrament of reconciliation par excellence. (Frank O’Loughlin, The Future of the Sacrament of Penance, St Paul Publications, Strathfield NSW, 2007, p.185)
Shortcomings of the Sacrament
A problem with the sacrament of reconciliation as it is currently practised is that it rarely gets to the deep seated cause of our habitual sins. People come into ‘the box’ with a ‘shopping list’ of failings, the same shopping list they have been confessing for years. There is little change in their spiritual lives. ‘I told lies six times’, ‘I yelled at my kids four times’, ‘I had indecent thoughts five times’. Why is there no change in this litany after years of going to confession and repeating the same sins?
Because there is no attempt to get to the root cause of why I tell lies or why I get angry. The tragic case of priests who commit paedophilia illustrates this very well. These men would have confessed their sins many times and promised not to sin again but they kept on doing it because they had not got to the root cause of the problem.
The Letter to the Hebrews talks of ‘the sin that clings so closely’ (Hebrews 12:1), the sin that we just cannot shake off. It may require an insight which can be gained through prayer or spiritual direction to find out why this sin seems to be so ingrained, so much a part of me.
It may be the result of a childhood in which there was serious abuse or a relationship that went sour and has left deep scars. If such is the case then some healing prayer or counselling may be required. Abuses in the past can leave deep anger, resentment and frustration. Just to confess these failings which we may call ‘sins’ does not get to the basic cause and they occur again and again.
All of us are born with a certain temperament which has its positives and its negatives. The introvert temperament lends itself to looking inward and is conducive to a more contemplative life. But the other side of the coin is that introverts may avoid assisting those in need.
Some are very quick in their reactions. This helps them to be always ready to assist the needy and to do this with good organisational skills. The negative side of this is they may also be quick to get angry and hurt others and to dominate.
Some tell lies because they need to cover up their lack of self-worth; some get angry because there is an unresolved hurt in their past. Some watch pornography because they have not matured sexually. These are sins that cling so closely they form part of our identity.
Selfishness the Original Sin?
Selfishness is a very important example of ‘the sin that clings so closely’. We may have inherited selfishness through our evolutionary background. An animal’s first instinct is survival. As soon as a magpie sees a worm it snaps it up with its sharp beak and eats it –with no thought whatever for the unlucky worm.
There must be, in us as in other organisms, a genetic predisposition to act in self-serving ways, since such creatures as bacteria, plants, and “lower” animals have no cultural mode of information transmission on which we can blame their selfish behavior, nor is there evidence that any such predisposition has recently been deleted from our genetic code. (Daryl P. Domning and Monica K. Hellwig, Original Selfishness-Original Sin and Evil in the Light of Evolution,2006, Ashgate Publishing, Hampshire UK, p.108)
Animals have been competing for food for hundreds of millions of years. ‘Survival of the fittest’ is one of the key factors in evolution. Selfishness is necessary for survival and is passed on from generation to generation.
I like this light-hearted comment from Domning:
Most of the time when the lion lies down with the lamb, only one of them gets up again. (p.128)
As evolution continued, our nearest relatives, the monkeys and apes, followed the same genetic pattern. Humankind eventually appeared and the selfishness continues as each of us has experienced. ‘Look after number one’ is very dominant in our culture.
Selflessness for Humans
But with humans another dynamic comes into play. We have a degree of self-awareness which is less well developed or even non-existent in other species, and we are conscious that other people also have a right to the available food. It’s only with humans that consideration for others becomes a factor. So now we have a tension between one’s own instinct for survival and compassion for others – selfishness versus altruism.
Paul’s analysis of this situation could not be more congruent with what modern evolutionary science reveals: “My inner self agrees with the law of God, but I see in my body’s members [read: in the biologically inherited sources of my behavior] another law at war with the law of my mind; this makes me the prisoner of the law of sin in my members”. (Romans 7:22–23) (Domning and Hellwig p.152–3; the phrase in square brackets is in the original).
When we move away from a literal reading of scripture, these suggestions are quite compatible with the book of Genesis.
In simplest terms it can be said that the Genesis 1–3 stories, like myths, fables and parables, present in a narrative stretched through a time-line what is in fact an interpretation of the human situation at any time, in any here and now. Adam is any one of us. (Domning and Hellwig, p.96)
Jesus provides us with the archetypal model of selflessness. His life lived for others is the bench-mark. ‘He willingly died for us’ says the Eucharistic Prayer for Children III. We are called to follow this example to the best of our ability.
What Jesus calls us to is nothing less than the subversion (or better, the conversion) of evolution itself. (Domning and Hellwig, p.127)
The desire to preserve not only my own life but my own interests at all costs, even to denying justice to others, is a ‘sin that clings so closely’.
In my spiritual journey I need to become more and more aware of my innate tendency to see the world as revolving around me. I need a Copernican revolution in order to see others as the centre of my world. The constant reminders of Jesus’ selflessness in the Eucharist are a valuable aid in this endeavour.
How the Eucharist HelPS
The Eucharist helps us to do something with these ‘sins that cling so closely’. When the root cause of the sin is brought to the surface it can be presented to God along with the gifts of bread and wine to be transformed. This is a very valuable form of reconciliation – being reconciled to God for hurts of the past, addictions that are hard to break, negative parts of the temperament and evolutionary selfishness. When you consciously and deliberately surrender these matters to God at the presentation of gifts Sunday by Sunday or whenever you participate in Mass, slowly a reconciliation takes place in the very depths of your being.
It is Jesus’ death and resurrection that has won forgiveness of our sins and reconciles us to God. This is the saving event for us.
For I handed on to you what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures. (1 Corinthians 15:3–4)
In the Eucharist we remember this saving event, the death and resurrection of Jesus. Paul puts this very succinctly when he says that Jesus was
handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification. (Romans 4:25).
This remembering takes place at every Eucharist, immediately after the blessing of the bread and wine. In Eucharistic Prayer II we say
Therefore, as we celebrate the memorial of his Death and Resurrection, we offer you, Lord, the Bread of Life and the Chalice of Salvation . . .
This remembering brings that saving event into the present moment. When this deep reconciliation takes place through this remembering, then we are ‘re-membered’ into the Body of Christ, that is, we are once again authentic members of the assembly of the faithful.
This is one of the wonderful mysteries of the Mass. It enables us to be at the foot of the cross when Jesus died and it enables us to be at the empty tomb to know the resurrection of Jesus from the dead as the ‘beloved disciple’ did.
He saw and he believed. (John 20:8)
When you buy a weekly travel ticket, you pay your money at the time of purchase. Then each time you travel you ‘validate’ your ticket, that is, you make it operative for that day. Similarly, Jesus paid the price of our redemption once and once only when he died and rose again 2000 years ago. When we participate actively in the Eucharist, then this redemptive act is ‘validated’ for us and we receive all the wonderful benefits of Jesus’ death and resurrection including reconciliation with God.
When we surrender to the Lord ‘the sin that clings so closely’ during the Eucharist, Jesus’ saving event is activated for us at that moment. The grace of his death and resurrection works for us in the depths of our being. However, we need to do this consciously, deliberately. It does not happen automatically as when you put your clothes into a washing machine, press a button, walk away and the machine does the job for you. Our full cooperation throughout the process is essential for the washing away of these deep-seated stains. We surrender the problem to the Lord at every presentation of the bread and wine with the expectation that just as the bread and wine are transformed into the body and blood of Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, so we are slowly transformed into a better likeness of the Risen One.
My little children, for whom I am again in the pain of childbirth until Christ is formed in you . . . (Galatians 4:19)
This reconciliation with God in the depths of our being is one of the most important aspects of our spiritual journey. It may mean slogging through the deep mud of an abused childhood, feeling again the dirt of a painful relationship, but there is no way around the quagmire – you just have to go through it. Paradoxically, after wading through this mud you come out cleaner. We must not adopt the mentality of ‘I can’t help it – it’s just part of my nature, it’s in my genes’. We do have free will but cleansing ourselves of these clinging sins requires a lot of inner work, perhaps over years.
The Eucharist is a powerful sacrament of reconciliation. Let’s take full advantage of the riches it offers.