By the sacrament of Baptism, we receive the gift of a new being, and become children of God. By the sacrament of Chrismation, we are empowered by the Holy Spirit to act according to this new being. By the sacrament of Eucharist, we are nourished by the Body and Blood of Christ to attain in our life the full stature of our new being as children of God. Our progress in the realization of this goal is hampered by many obstacles inherent to our human condition, obstacles which come either from inside, like pride, selfishness, and other vicious passions, or from outside, like the seductions of the world or the enmity of other people.
If we follow these temptations and stray away from God’s way, we commit what we call in our religious language “sin”. Sin is usually understood as a disobedience to one of God’s commandments. This is true, but sin is more than an act of disobedience, it is a refusal of God himself. It is the will of a human being to take the place of God in all the decisions he is making.
By Baptism we are plunged in the new being of Jesus Christ, and commit ourselves to follow Christ’s way of life. By sin we renege on our commitment and follow our own will. Here comes the role of the mystery of Repentance, which is a renewal of Baptism’s grace.
It is the return of the prodigal son to his father. It is first of all “repentance,” a regret of we have done, secondly it is “conversion,” a profound change of mind, and thirdly it is “reconciliation” with our heavenly Father.
1. Repentance and forgiveness
To repent is to recognize that what we have done is evil and to confess our responsibility in our actions. It is true that our freedom is not absolute, but conditioned by so many elements of this world, either personal or social or political. But we remain free, at least in a certain measure to yield to the pressure of these conditions or to oppose it.
To repent does not mean to stay fixed to our past and constantly condemn ourselves for having committed such sins, it rather means to accept the responsibility of our past, and to look out for the future. This is only possible if we believe that God in Christ has forgiven us our sins. God’s forgiveness opens to us the way to the future. Without God’s forgiveness we remain imprisoned in the remorse of our culpability, or continually exposed to the judgment of the guardians of the law, like the adulteress whom the scribes and Pharisees brought to Jesus, asking him his opinion about her behavior (John 8:3-11). Jesus forgave her, “Neither do I condemn you”, and said to all these men to look at themselves and recognize that all of them are sinners who need God’s forgiveness. Then he said to the woman, now that she has been forgiven, to look at the future and start a new way of live: “Go your way, and from now on do not sin again” (John8:11).
Conversion is the profound attitude of someone who makes a total change in his life. Instead of refusing God or willing to take God’s place in the decisions he is making, he returns to God and accepts him as his Father and Creator. Instead of making his decisions and doing his actions according to his own desires and his own passions and his own interests, he makes them according to God’s will. Instead of considering himself the creator of his life and of the values which direct his choices, he returns to God recognizing that God is his creator and the creator of the Values according to which every human being must direct his life in order to reach the perfection of his humanity.
We, Christians, believe that God sent his own Son our Lord Jesus Christ, who is his Word and his Wisdom and the expression of his will and of his plan for humanity, to be our way to him and to our human perfection. We do not create neither our way of life nor the values for our conduct. In Jesus’s teaching and life we find out our way and the values for our life. To be Christian is to follow Jesus, who is “The Way, and the Truth, and the Life” (John 14:6). And conversion is to go back to Christ to have a new mind according to Christ’s mind, and to start a new way of life according to Christ’s way of life.
Conversion is not only reconciliation with the self. Because sin is always a refusal of God, conversion is reconciliation with God. T be a good human being, to have a loving and unselfish relationship with people, not to harm anyone, all this is the sign of a good human conduct. What does our faith add to this good human conduct? Is it not enough to be reconciled with people who have something against us? Is it necessary to be reconciled with God?
Reconciliation in Christianity is a sacrament, a sign of God’s grace. We forgive others because we have been first forgiven by God. Our reconciliation with others is always accompanied by and based on our reconciliation with God. We return to our Father in heaven, and in him we are reconciled with his children, our brothers and sisters. Sometimes our relationship with others is so stressed and so hard that it seems to us impossible to forgive them and to love them. Only god can empower us to forgive and to love. What seems impossible to us is not impossible to God.
The Church has been given the ministry of reconciliation between people, but this ministry is based on our reconciliation with God, as St. Paul says: “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and has given us the ministry of reconciliation, that is, God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us” (2Corinthians 5:18-19).
The sinner cannot forgive himself. To be delivered from his sin, he usually justifies himself not considering what he did as a sin. Forgiveness comes from God, who knows that we are weak creatures, and waits for our return to him. He has adopted us as his children, and even though we sin he still considers us his children, and calls us to repentance and reconciliation. He is the God o love and he calls us to be always opened o love, and to the renewal of our commitment to live in union with him.
The mystery of Repentance is not a trial, in which the sinner is condemned, it is rather a feast in which the sinner hears the voice of his Father: “Get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate, for this son of mine was dead and is alive again, he was lost, and is found” (Luke 15:23-24).
4. Reconciliation with our fellow men and women
In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus taught us to pray: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” (Luke 11:4). He adds, explaining this petition: “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:14-15).
The mystery of Repentance is not to be separated from the life of the Christian. It is usually easier to ask God’s forgiveness, the “person” we do not see, than asking forgiveness from the person I see with my own eyes. There is therefore a dialectical movement between the forgiveness we ask from God and the forgiveness given to others. Our petition for God’s forgiveness will not be heard unless we have first met a strict requirement: to forgive others. Our petition looks to the future, but our response must come first, for the two parts are joined by the single word “as”. The forgiveness received from God our Father urges us to forgive our brothers and sisters “who trespass against us.” From the other side the more we are conscious of the forgiveness received from God the more we are disposed to forgive “those who trespass against us”.
“Thus the Lord’s words on forgiveness, the love that loves to the end, become a living reality. The parable of the merciless servant, which crowns the Lord’s teaching on ecclesial communion, ends with these words: “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” (Mathew 18:35) it is there, in fact, ‘in the depths of the heart’, that everything is bond and loosed. It is not in our power not to feel or to forget an offense, but the heart that offers itself to the Holy Spirit turns injury into compassion and purifies the memory in transforming the hurt into intercession.” Catechism of the Catholic Church, Par. 2843.
Finally the mystery of Repentance disposes to the forgiveness of enemies, transfiguring the Christians by configuring them to Christ, and helping them to live as “Children of God”. As disciples of Christ and children of God, we are called, by the forgiveness received from God and the forgiveness given even to our enemies, to bear witness that in our world, love is stronger than sin: “You have heard that it was said you shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy’ but I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven: for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:43-45).