Christ Jesus some two thousand years ago came into this world to bring
redemption for our sins. He did this through his death and resurrection, or what
we refer to as the pascal mystery. We still encounter the saving presence of the
Lord in the sacraments and in the Word. In each and every sacrament we come face
to face with “the grace of God our Savior” (Titus 2:11). It is thisredemption
of sins aspect of the sacraments that I will be examine.
In the past couple of
century we have focused are attention primarily on the Sacrament of Penance as
the means to obtain forgiveness of sins after Baptism. We have come to focus on
it so much that it has come to be, for most Catholics, understood as the only
sacrament though which forgiveness of sins is obtained. This belief as we will
see is an incorrect understanding because we encounter the saving presence of
the Lord in other sacraments and ways not only in the Sacrament of Penance.
However the Sacrament of Penance is always to be understood as the primary
sacrament for forgiveness of mortal sins after Baptism.
To better understand how this can be let us first look at the general
background of the development of the Sacrament of Penance. The Sacrament of
Penance has it’s roots even as far back as the day of resurrection when Christ
breathed out the spirit on the disciples and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy
If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you retain anyone’s
sins, they are retained.’ (John 20:22-23). In Paul’s second letter to the
Corinthians we see Paul developing this teaching of Christ, when he says ‘All
this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the
ministry of reconciliation; that is, God was in Christ reconciling the world to
himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the
message of reconciliation. So we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his
appeal through us. We beseech you..
.be reconciled to God. For our sake he made
him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness
of God( 2 Cor. 5:18-21). These two passages would seem to be part of the
sacrament’s biblical foundation. The sacrament itselfwould seem to have come
about as a result of the early Church’s struggle to recognize that Baptism may
forgive sin but it didn’t end the struggle against sin.
People fell into sin
even after Baptism, so in order to bring these fallen members back into the
Christian community the Sacrament of Penance was established.
In the second and up to the sixth century A.D. a Christian could only
receive the Sacrament of Penance once after Baptism. The penitent would have to
first confess before his or her bishop. The penitent would then be required to
participate in the “order of penitents” of the early Church.
This required the
penitent to wear special clothes, and the penitent would have to go to a special
place with other penitents when worshipping with the community. The community
would pray for those in the “order of penitents” during the worship serves, and
the bishop would lay his hands on the penitents. But this laying on of hands did
not take on the character of absolution until it was done during the worship
serves on Thursday of Holy Week. The penitents were not allowed to receive
Eucharist because the penitents were excommunicated, excluded from Communion.
After a period of probation, prescribed by the bishop, the penitent would be
absolved of the sins the individual committed. The bishop would do this by
laying his hands on the penitent.
The typical time for this reconciliation to
take place was on Thursday of Holy Week before the Baptisms took place. The
reason it was done at this time was because the early Church believed that both
Baptism and Penance were both sacraments that brought about forgiveness of sins
and that they should be prepared for at the same time. It was just this type of
thinking that also led the early Church to the belief that the sacrament could
only be received once. This time of preparation, for the Sacrament of
Reconciliation,has come to be what we refer to now as the liturgical season of
Lent. This belief that the sacrament could only be received once and due to the
strict penance received for sins it became customary among Christians of these
earlier centuries .