EASTER FIRST SUNDAY AFTER - 2
"Whose sins you shall forgive they are forgiven."
In this spring-time of the year, when men go forth, to cast the seed into the furrow, and trust once again to the unceasing fruitfulness which God has given to the fertile earth – in this season also the Church goes forth with the seeds of richest promise, to prepare the hearts that hear her for that harvest that God shall one day gather from the earth into the glory of heaven.
At this holy and joyous time, the festivals of the Church are crowding quickly upon each other, and mysteries of the most sublime and the most varied character are being presented for our consideration. The church in those days that are past, and that are passing, has been touching, and with a hand inspired by God, every chord in the human heart. But a little while ago, a cloud fell on her altars, and she summoned us to witness a sorrow, like unto which there never has been any sorrow, an agony which, for greatness and for intensity, stands alone and unequalled in all that has ever yet been told, or ever can be told, of the stories of human suffering. There has been before us a Sacred Body pierced with many a wound, disfigured with many a weal; crowned with a crown beneath which, even the awe-stricken angels might scarce have recognized their King. We have seen Him, bleeding, suffering, dying, dead upon His Mother’s knees; and the wail of psalm and lamentation arose around the bier of the dead Christ; and, even still the Church kept watch around His tomb, amid the awful memories of those three days, when the very dead arose and walked in the streets of Jerusalem; she waited patiently with the patience of the sublime faith, which even death could not conquer. She waited till she received in faithful ears the angel’s message, which she has carried down for the consolation of every generation since: “You seek Jesus of Nazareth, whom they crucified, He is risen, He is not here, behold the place where they laid Him.” And then she went forth, and when the bells rang to the faithful on the Easter morning, the Church had dried the tears of mourning in her cheeks, and she announced that Christ, her Spouse, was risen and dies now no more.
And think you, my brethren, might she not have rested here; might she not have closed the book of the Gospels, and laid it shut upon the altar, and said to you, her children, that she had no more to tell about the mercy and the love of Jesus? Might she not, at any rate, have led you to the altar where the miracle of the Last supper, is made as everlasting as the sunrise of the morning, and showing you Jesus Himself in the majestic humility of His Holy Sacrament; might she not have said to you: Rest there in peace with the God who died that He might place you there, but if you ever leave that altar and turn your back on Him Who loved you at such a cost of tears and blood; if you defile the wedding garment that makes you not unworthy to be a guest at that Holy Table; if you stain your soul by future mortal sin, then even heaven’s mercy can do no more, you will go forth never to return gain, never again to meet Jesus Who loved you , till you meet Him, when the gate of death has swung behind you, wielding the thunderbolt of heaven’s vengeance from the judgment-seat of God?
Ah, my brethren, if after once, or many times falling away from grace by mortal sin, there were no longer any hope of pardon, who of us could expect, when the years of childhood had passed by, to celebrate with anything of joy the coming of even two Easter times? The young, with the jewels of their baptismal innocence still glistening upon their foreheads, might gather round the altar, and for them might the Mass be said, and into their untainted hearts might enter the infinitely Holy God, Who is hidden in the Sacrament of the Eucharist. But when to their advancing feet life had opened its doors more widely, when passion had grown along with reason, and when, in some dark hour of terrible temptation, they had cast away from the husks of swine, the plenty and the sweetness of their father’s house, then might they come, as sorrow-stricken men have come, to cherish their sorrow in the places where they had once been happy; they might come with a sadness like the sadness of death, and look in at the door of the Church which they might never again be worthy to enter. They might look from a distance at the lights of the altars, but it would be with such despairing look, as that with which a shipwrecked sailor gazes upon the lights of a shore he can never hope to reach, and hears the storm foretell his doom, and feels the waves beating him to death.
If Jesus, through Hs church had spoken to us thus: "All that the endurance of man, all that the love of a God, could do for you, that have I done. I have poured forth my blood so lavishly that it has left its red traces over all the world, till the angels who look down from heaven, see the earth as it wheels through space, purpled everywhere with my sacred blood. I have loved you, as none ever loved you; I have died for you even when you were lost. It has been said: 'Greater love than this no man hath, than that a man lay down his life for his friends;' but even a greater love than this was Mine, for I died for you when you were My Father's enemies and Mine." Now, He might have continued, "Now, at the cost of such agony, such tears, such blood, I have brought you back from the jaws of hell, and have placed you at the Holy Table where I have provided sustenance no less precious than my body and my blood; but having done so much, what can I, nay, what ought I do more? And, if after all these graces you are found so faithless as to hurry back into the full embrace of mortal sin, then, your chance is lost, your doom is certain and irrevocable." Surely, my brethren, if He had spoken so, if such had been the conditions of salvation He established, not one of us would have dared to say that the conditions were unjust. But has He said this? ah, ye who have once, and many a time, forfeited by mortal sin the salvation so hardly won, so dearly purchased, it behooves you to listen for the answer, when laden with mortal sin, with many mortal sins, you come into the Church; between you and the altar, which you have forfeited the right to approach as communicants, stands the confessional where that right may be made good to you again.
Yes, to-day, the Church has turned another page in her Gospel, and with exultant voice she tells that in those days after the resurrection, when, even though the work of Redemption had been accomplished, Jesus seemed loth to leave the scenes of His unexampled suffering. He came to her in the persons of His apostles, and gave into her hands, already so filled with gifts, another boon for her children; how He sent her, on her mission to the whole wide world, even as His Eternal Father had sent Him, and how He dowered her, as none but the Son of the Eternal God could dower her, with these glorious words that the sinners of every age were to see written upon her unwrinkled forehead: “Whose sins you shall forgive they are forgiven, and whose sins you shall retain they are retained.”
During those forty days our Blessed Lord was engaged in organizing that vast power, which was to conquer without a human weapon, which was to establish to the uttermost limits of the earth, an empire such as human power has never even dreamed of establishing, and which, with a silence like the silence of the sunrise, was to take possession of the world, and to hold it on behalf of God.
The mission of the Church was exactly such a mission as He had Himself received from His Eternal Father; and as the work of God in the world He has made, and the work of the Son of God in the world He has redeemed, consists of two general branches: first, to enlighten men with knowledge, and secondly, to supply them with helps to carry knowledge into practice; so the Church had a mission for exactly similar purposes; first, to instruct men by faith unto salvation, and secondly to give them such help as would enable them to use their faith for the salvation of their souls. For the first of these offices our Lord provided, when he said to His apostles, and, through them, to their successors: “Go teach all nations.” But as Jesus well knew that nations and men, even when they know the true and the good, have hot only the dangerous power, but also an inherent proneness to do that which is evil, our Blessed Lord, looking forward to the times that were to be, saw, that if men were to be saved at all, a means should be provided by which, up to the very moment that the breath of life remained, and sin was consequently possible and probable, even the fatal evil of mortal sin should have a remedy. Our Lord provided that remedy, and how? By setting up in the Church the tribunal of the confessional.
And of this tribunal let me say – first, this, that as Jesus Christ is the absolute Master of the forgiveness He imparts, and as He has appointed this means of forgiveness, from that hour to this, there is no other way under heaven by which mortal sin can be remitted except through the sacrament of Penance. You have been taught, and the teaching is true, that an act of perfect contrition at one blots out mortal sin, if there be no opportunity of confession; but if afterwards the opportunity come, and if the sin be not confessed, then it remains to sink the balance of God’s justice at the judgment-seat. Oh, my brethren, if those who conceal their sins in confession, and some there are who do, if they could only bring home to themselves that there are under heaven only two alternatives, either confession or hellfire, they would not allow the devil to choke back the acknowledgment of guilt that would find in the confession the most tender mercy and the most complete forgiveness; they would not deprive themselves of the peace which here or hereafter they shall never know, if the Church has not first exercised through her priest the ministry of absolution which Jesus Christ Himself has given into her hands.
Consider this tribunal of confession. Was there ever established upon earth a tribunal so merciful as this? The tribunals of men are instituted for detecting crime, and for inflicting punishment. The tribunal of confession is meant to hide away our sin for ever, even from the eyes of God, and the only punishment it inflicts is the pang of sorrow that must strike a heat in which gratitude is not dead, to think that by our sin we had so grievously offended a God Who made no return for the offence, save the return of such God-like mercy.
One amongst you, in some hour of weakness, some hour of passion, had committed a mortal sin. Perhaps it is a shameful sin, so shameful that her would hide it, almost at the peril of his life, from the fondest and the dearest friend he ever had. He buries it in the profoundest depths of his troubled heart; but well he knows that God sees it and hates it, that hell is kindled for the eternal punishment of just such sins s this, and that even if he carry his guilty secret beyond the gates of death, into the very depths of hell, that though men cannot write it upon his tomb yet God shall brand it on his forehead, and, on the judgment day the countless sons of Adam shall read it there.
What shall he do? Ah, see how merciful is God’s tribunal upon earth. God will have that sinner go apart where the uncharitable world cannot hear the whisper of his sin. He will have him disarm vengeance by being his own accuser; and, when the sin has been confessed, it has fallen dead for ever into the ear of a man, but of a man who is sworn y the dearest and most sacred ties that bind on earth, sworn by his very hope of heaven, to bury what he has heard in the confessional in a silence more lasting and more unbroken that the silence of lips on which death has set its seal for ever.
Ah! And it is not silence alone you find in the confessional. The priest holds there, and knows he is but holding, the place of Jesus Christ himself. Will he dare, as he hopes for heaven, to treat the sinner otherwise than Jesus Christ has treated sinners: If his own soul be dear to him, can he venture to make his brother’s burden heavier than God has made it, or peril his own hope of everlasting happiness, by driving way the sinner from the fountain of mercy, that Jesus has opened in the Sacrament of Penance?
Such is the tribunal that Jesus has established in His Church, and to this have come, in every generation, every class of men within the broad bosom of the Catholic church; all he come, and have found the peace of sin forgiven at the feet of the minister of Jesus Christ.
You have sinned; you just entering on the road of life, or you on whom the sun of middle age is shining, or you whose grey hair and world-weary hearts give warning of the nearness of death and the judgment of God. Would you banish the bitter memories that torture your hearts; would you life from your soul the weight that is paralyzing it; would you blot out the sentence of eternal death that is written against your name in the books of God’ would you free your days from the blight of God’s anger, and your nights from the peril of hell-fire? Ah! If you would do so, under God, and under heaven, there is one way and only one; make, and make speedily, before it is too late, a good confession.