The sacrament of mercy

Archbishop Paul S. Coakley             March 20, 2016

On the First Sunday of Lent we heard that immediately after his baptism, “Jesus was led by the Holy Spirit into the desert” (Lk.4:1). For 40 days Jesus fasted, prayed and was tempted by the devil. Why was Jesus baptized in the first place? 

The baptism administered by John the Baptist was an act of repentance that began with a personal confession of sins (Mk.1:5). Those who went down to the Jordan to be baptized by John humbled themselves. Their action was accompanied by heartfelt prayer for pardon.

Imagine the scene: crowds of the “unwashed” gathering at the Jordan River to confess their sins. How shocking it was (even to John) to see Jesus joining the ranks of these sinful men and women! Would seeing Jesus awaiting his turn among the ranks of sinners at the Jordan be any less shocking than it would be to see him in the confessional line in any Catholic church on a Saturday afternoon?

Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan shows us how completely he identifies himself with us sinners. Jesus, the innocent Lamb of God, went down into the Jordan to be baptized as an act of solidarity with sinful humanity. His baptism is a revelation of the Father’s mercy! He takes the sins of the world (including mine and yours) upon himself. As his public life unfolds and leads ultimately to his passion and death, he bears our sins and nails them to the cross. Such is the amazing mercy of God!

When Jesus was criticized for his association with sinners, he replied, “Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do. I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mk.2:17). Failing to confess our sins, we exclude ourselves from the company of Jesus, who was known as the “friend of sinners” (Lk.7:34).

If Jesus does not hesitate to identify himself with sinful humanity, why would we be so hesitant to do so? It is only in the acknowledgement of our sins that we encounter the mercy of God. In order for us to participate in the great Jubilee of Mercy, we have to take our place in the ranks of sinful humanity!

Our Lenten disciplines are incomplete if they do not lead us to repentance and the confession of our sins in the Sacrament of Penance. Lasting change in our lives begins with an encounter with Jesus, the visible face of the Father’s mercy. That encounter invites us to examine our lives through the lens of the mercy that we have received, and make the changes that will help us follow Jesus more closely.

In the waning days of Lent and as we approach Easter, I suggest we examine our appreciation of this sacrament. The Sacrament of Penance is one of the means Jesus has entrusted to his Church to heal, to reconcile and help us grow in holiness.

How well do we make use of this precious gift? The Sacrament of Penance is not just for Lent and Advent. It ought to be a regular, even monthly, practice as a powerful aid in our struggle to overcome sin and to live as disciples of Jesus. There is plenty of room in the confessional line for each of us. Jesus is saving us a place.

Print or download a free two-page “Guide to Confession.”