The Sacrament of Penance as it is celebrated today in the Catholic Church is the way that we ritualize the fact that God forgives our sins once we confess them and express sorrow for them. Our present Holy Father frequently reminds us that God is always ready to forgive us if only we approach God in humility and ready to receive that mercy. It was not always so in the early history of the Church. As a matter of fact, the Season of Lent has its origins in the Sacrament of Penance.
For the first century or more of the Church's existence, the Church forgave sinners in a ritual that extended over the forty days preceding the celebration of the annual festival of the Lord's resurrection. This time of ritual repentance gradually became a time for all Christians to remember that they were sinners and to turn away from their sins.
On the first day of Lent (which was celebrated on a Monday rather Wednesday), the passage from St. Matthew's Gospel which is used for today's liturgy was used to signal the ancient practice of publically separating the sinners from the saved. After proclaiming the Gospel, those who were recognized as sinners were asked to leave the assembly and spent the next forty days at the entrance to the church clothed in sack cloth and ashes where everyone who entered could see them. These people were generally guilty of one of three sins: murder, adultery, or apostasy. At the end of the forty days, on what we now all Holy Thursday and the celebration of the Lord's Supper, they were readmitted to the church and allowed to wear the white robe of their baptism again. This ritual was allowed only once in the life of the individual Christian. If the sinner fell again, he or she was permanently excluded from the assembly.
The Church celebrates the Sacrament of Penance much differently in our own day. The public spectacle of repentance has been eliminated for all intents and purposes. Now everyone is marked with ashes as we begin this annual season of introspection and renewal. Many will seek the Lord's forgiveness by confessing their sins to a priest who will offer them the absolution of the Church and will privately urge the sinner to "turn away from sin and believe the Gospel."
Each time we hear today's Gospel proclaimed, we are reminded of the day when Jesus will return with salvation for the people of God. Lent stands as a time to prepare for that day when Christ will separate saint from sinner and gather the sheep into the loving arms of God. Unlike our early Christian brothers and sisters, we are fortunate to be able to confess our sins more than once in a life time. God’s mercy knows no boundaries. No matter what the sin or how often we have sinned, God is ready to forgive.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator