Doesn't it feel wonderful to be forgiven? When spouses have an argument about something petty or silly and the one who started it is able to say, "You know, I was wrong. I'm so sorry"—isn't there a feeling in the heart that is especially wonderful? When children are disobedient and finally admit it, doesn't it feel great when their parents tell them that they are forgiven? When friends argue, doesn't it feel terrific to regain the lost friendship and say, "All is forgotten"?
Forgiveness is the greatest gift that we can receive. The whole reason why Jesus came among us as a man and suffered and died for us on the cross was to give us the gift of reconciliation with his Father and with our brothers and sisters. His whole purpose was to heal the rift that had been caused by the sin of Adam. Jesus’ goal is for us to be brought into a perfect union with his Father and with each other. He wants us all to have that amazing experience of being forgiven—not just for a moment but for all eternity.
Every day, we can celebrate Jesus: the salvation he won for us by dying and rising from the dead, his precious gift of a new life in him, and the way he pours out his mercy upon us when we repent. With all of these blessings just waiting for us, what could possibly keep us from reconciling ourselves with God each and every day? Why would we ever want to avoid the feeling of relief and happiness that comes when our “fault is taken away,” and our “sin is covered”?
Removing the Heavy Burden of Guilt.
While I kept silence, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. (Psalm 32:3-4)
Who cannot relate to the depression and heaviness that come from feeling guilty? That little boy who is hiding something from his parents is struggling with the worry of what will happen when they eventually do find out. (Maybe he broke his mom’s favorite vase.) Ironically, he is punishing himself much more severely than his parents ever would. He cannot enjoy even a moment of happiness, because his guilt could be uncovered at any time.
How about the wife who thoughtlessly hurt her husband and then realizes what she did, but cannot bring herself to ask for his forgiveness? She is probably unable to forgive herself, and she, most likely, doesn’t believe that she deserves her husband’s forgiveness. At the same time, the longer she waits, the higher the wall of separation rises between them.
The psalmist describes this burden of guilt in a very graphic and compelling way. It’s as if he’s asking us to examine how we ourselves experience the feeling of our bones “wasting away” when we know that we have offended God or hurt a brother or sister. In what ways do we feel God’s hand heavy upon us? What causes our strength to be “dried up as by the heat of summer”?
Answering these kinds of questions honestly is the first step in being able to examine our consciences. Admitting the very real pain that we feel because our actions have damaged our relationship with God is the best way to begin the process of reconciliation and to bring us to a place where we can experience his mercy flowing over us. Remember: As long as we fail to acknowledge our guilt, we cannot experience the joy of being forgiven and set free. That joy cannot be ours until we first “speak.” And if we do begin to speak, we will find ourselves covered in God’s love, just as the prodigal son could barely get a few words out before his father wrapped him in his warm embrace and forgave everything.
Freedom through Forgiveness.
Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,” and you forgave the guilt of my sin. (Psalm 32:5)
Many people mistakenly believe that Catholics readily welcome guilt into their lives, that their faith is based upon guilt and earning God’s forgiveness through our efforts. The truth is that we care about guilt because we know how freeing it is to be forgiven. We know that once we have the courage to confess our sins, our healing can begin. However, for some of us, it can be really difficult to get to this point. We can struggle and struggle to avoid admitting the truth about ourselves. However, in the final analysis, truth, contrition, and forgiveness are the only way to real freedom.
Participating in the Sacrament of Reconciliation is the normal way for Catholics to experience that powerful moment described by the psalmist: “I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,’ and you forgave the guilt of my sin” (Psalm 32:5). If a long time has passed since you last experienced the joy of this beautiful sacrament, resolve to do so as soon as possible.
If you are carrying a heavy burden of sin or guilt, then the joy that this sacrament gives will truly be liberating. To the child who was trying to deceive his parents, it must have appeared that the moment of being discovered would be the moment of defeat. Instead, it is the moment of victory and freedom.
God Will Always Forgive Us.
This son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found… . We had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found. (Luke 15:24,32)
The parable of the prodigal son allows us to shift our focus from our need to request and receive forgiveness to God’s eager and burning desire to pour out his forgiveness on all of us. It is perfectly clear that our loving Father is always willing to forgive us no matter what we have done to offend him. It is almost as clear that we tend to have a difficult time accepting this forgiveness.
The fifteenth chapter of the gospel of Luke—with its three parables of lost things (the sheep, the coin, the son)—illustrates for us the joy that God feels when he recovers what had been “lost.” In fact, there is no greater joy in heaven the rejoicing that takes place whenever a loved one returns home. And what’s even more amazing is that God invites us to experience a share in this joy whenever a brother or sister asks us for forgiveness. This powerful moment is available to all of us in the Christian community when we celebrate a communal penance service, and it is ours in a much more personal way when a member of our family or a dear friend comes to us individually and asks for our forgiveness.
Suppose that the little boy who broke his mother’s favorite vase finally admits it and is rewarded with a big hug instead of a punishment. How is his little sister likely to react? Most likely, she would think to herself, “I am innocent. I deserve much more than my brother who broke the vase.” Isn’t this the way in which the brother of the prodigal son thought and acted? But the truth is that we are all sinners. We all need God’s forgiving mercy. And so we should all rejoice—as one church united with each other—as we all share in the wonders of God’s overflowing mercy.
Fr. Alfredo Hernandez STL is the pastor of St. Juliana’s parish in West Palm Beach, Florida.