Take heart It is I, Do Not Be Afraid
God has always used signs and symbols throughout salvation history to communicate his love and presence to his people. The New Testament sacraments are also referred to as signs and symbols by some of the great doctors of the church like St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. As a convert from Protestantism, I was used to the idea of signs and symbols. However, with my conversion I learned that these things are not merely just signs and symbols. Through these signs and symbols, grace is actually conferred to the soul. The sacraments are channels of grace by which we receive God’s very own life and are able to participate in the divine nature. They are efficacious in that the grace we receive in the sacraments causes us to bear fruit and live holy lives (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1131). Each particular sacrament has a special way of drawing us nearer to God’s divine life and grace. Through the sacrament of reconciliation, we come to experience the depths of God’s eternal mercy coupled with Christ’s love in being cleansed of our sins. We receive the grace needed to strengthen, heal and restore us in our deepest times of spiritual need. In specifics, there are two types of grace that God gives us, which are actual grace and sanctifying grace. Though these may sound almost identical, they serve different purposes. Sanctifying grace is the actual divine life imparted to us that lives in the soul. It is what God infuses into our souls to cleanse us of our sins during absolution, it is how we are made clean. Actual graces are the divine nudges that we feel that push us to repentance, that keep us coming back to receive more sanctifying grace. As I’ve meditated on scripture and the events that led up to the ascension, I’ve discovered something particular about St. Peter and the sacrament of reconciliation. Not only is St. Peter our first pope and the chief of the apostles, but he is also a primary example of the graces that we receive through the forgiveness of sins, and a witness of how powerful reconciliation to God is to the soul.
Christ’s Use of Signs and Symbols to Peter
In chapter 18 of John’s gospel, we read of one of the detailed accounts of when St. Peter denies Jesus. The chief apostle denies the Lord not once, not twice, but three times. It is early in the morning before the sun has risen, and as St. Peter stands by the fire to warm himself our Lord is being arrested, beaten, and thrown into a cold jail cell to be handed over to be questioned by Pontius Pilate. I imagine the sinking feeling that Peter must have felt in the pit of his stomach as he stood there safe from harm’s way in the comfort of the warm fire. How often are we this way when we find ourselves in sin? Comfortable at the moment yet there is a feeling of guilt and regret in the back of our minds that we cannot ignore that grows and grows until it consumes us. It is oftentimes in these bitter moments that we realize our longing to be back in right relationship with God. Thankfully God has established the sacrament of reconciliation for this exact purpose for his church. Saint Augustine, when speaking about the sacraments, is known for describing them as ‘an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace.’ This means that through the visible sign of doing penance, invisible yet incredible sanctifying grace is poured into our souls. Chapter 21 of John’s gospel gives a perfect account of Christ using such signs and symbols to restore Peter’s soul. In chapter 21, we read about the second time that Jesus appeared to the disciples. It is morning, as it were morning when St. Peter betrayed him. Jesus is on the shore standing beside a fire, as St. Peter stood by a fire early on the morning that he denied Jesus. The disciples catch so many fish that they can barely pull the net over the boat again, as it was when Jesus first told Peter that he would make him a fisher of men. Christ also asks him three times “Do you love me?” This is significant because it is the number of times that Peter denied Jesus. What Christ is doing is bringing Peter back through the moments of his ministry and betrayal to restore his soul, and to let him know that he is forgiven. He is giving him the assurance of forgiveness that he may be able to continue with his vocation to lead the church.
Each one of us is also uniquely called to a vocation, and we should also rely on the healing that comes through forgiveness and renewal so that we may carry out our own vocations whether it be marriage or religious life, caring for the sick, or feeding the hungry. The sacrament of reconciliation communicates to us that his love for us is the key to unlocking the outpouring of grace we receive. Through the sacrament and through the example of St. Peter we see that Christ’s love for us tramples over even the greatest of sins and the deepest of sorrows. In the same way Christ used signs and symbols to draw Peter near to him such as the fish, fire, the time of the morning, and the repetition of the question to match the number of times Peter denied him, he uses the sacrament of reconciliation as a sign and symbol to draw us nearer to the lavishes of his mercy.
Examination of Conscience
“When Simon Peter heard that it was The Lord, he put on his outer garment, for he was stripped for work, and threw himself into the sea.” (John 21:7)
Mercy meets sorrow in the sacrament. Chapter 14 of Matthew’s gospel tells of the story of St. Peter asking Jesus to allow him to walk on water. Because of fear of drowning and lack of faith, Peter sinks. I oftentimes find myself in the same shoes as St. Peter, sinking in the waters of my own despair due to a lack of faith. This happens more than I’d like to admit. It is what sin does to us, it rips us apart and rubs our conscience raw. However even in that feeling of conviction, God’s actual grace is working in us and stirring our hearts to repentance. As always, he is drawing us near to him and to the riches of his mercy in the sacrament. What I find beautiful about both of Peter’s accounts with jumping off of the boat in both Matthew and then again in John, is that he allows Jesus to be the thing that draws him to his healing; he is always striving to meet Jesus. We can use this same example of St. Peter and apply it to our daily lives and how we approach the sacrament. Peter came boldly to Christ. When we approach the confessional, we should also come boldly to the throne of grace (Heb 4:16). Just as Peter relied on Christ to call him to walk on water, we should rely solely on Christ and the grace he provides to draw us near to him. What differs between the two accounts of Peter’s sinking in the water in Matthew’s gospel and later throwing himself into the water in John’s is his examination of conscience. The first time, his faith wasn’t strong enough but the second time in John’s gospel, after his examination of conscience and his response to the grace of God to bring him to his healing in Jesus, he threw himself into the water after our Lord. Each time we approach the sacrament of reconciliation we are encouraged to have an examination of conscience made in light of the word of God, such as the Ten Commandments or the Sermon on the Mount (CCC 1454). Such examination should cause us to not only want to repent, but to respond positively to the grace that God gives us both to bring us to repentance and to forgive us.
We are Forgiven
When I first became a catechumen, the thought of confessing my sins out loud terrified me. Prior to my conversion, as a protestant, whenever I’d confessed my sins it was always in the comfort of my own mind. I was confessing my sins directly to God as an act of prayer and worship. I was comfortable with this type of confession, until I realized that scripture speaks of it quite differently than how I’d imagined. For instance, 1 John 1:9 says that “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness”. The Greek word for confess in this passage is homologeō, which means to speak or confess, particularly with the mouth. This is demonstrated elsewhere in other passages of scripture such as Romans 10:9-10 which says the following:
“…If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.”
Another passage in scripture that demonstrates homologeō as being spoken with the mouth can be seen in examples such as Acts 23:8. This helped me realize that confession is not just a thing of the mind but is meant to be said out loud. If it were meant to be said aloud, then it would make sense that we are to hear something aloud in return, and that is absolution, the forgiving of our sins and the cleansing from unrighteousness.
This solved many problems for me when it came to my fear of confessing my sins out loud, and suddenly 1 John 1:9 made a lot more sense. I didn’t have to worry anymore about how many times I would confess the same sin over and over in my mind and never know objectively if I were being forgiven for committing the same sins. Hearing out loud not only that you’ve sinned and acknowledge it is powerful but hearing out loud that you are absolved of your sins is even more powerful. 1 John 1:9 is also a chief example of the sanctifying grace that is infused into the soul when we are reconciled back to God. The Greek world for cleansed in the passage is katharizō, which means to clean, purge, or purify. Because God’s divine life and words themselves are efficacious, when God declares us as freed from sin or justified, then in reality our souls become free from sin, or purified. When God said “Let there be light”, light came into existence in reality because he declared it into existence. In the same way when God declares us as forgiven our souls are actually made pure. We are made as white as snow, purged of the scarlet that tainted us before (Isaiah 1:18). With this fact we can confidently go forward with healing and restoration just as St. Peter went forth with his vocation to lead the church after Christ drew him in and healed him in part by verbally communicating to him that he knew his heart and love, and then restoring his soul with the strength it needed to fulfill his vocation.
Grace in the Sacrament
So, what can Peter teach us about the sacrament of reconciliation? First, that we must always go to Jesus, and find his love and mercy in the sacrament. Peter always went to Jesus in every account of the restoration of his soul and found Christ’s love and mercy. Second, that through visible signs, invisible grace is being conferred to us, both actual and sanctifying. In Peter there were many instances of him always being drawn back to Christ, let us respond to the actual grace pushing us to repentance. Every time we enter and leave the confessional we should be reminded of Christ and his cross, because just as he healed Peter by undoing the damage made to his soul in the biblical account of John 21, by his cross he also reverses the damage to our souls by forgiving our sins and reconciling us back to God. We are made clean and pure, and we receive the divine life of God in our souls in order to live holy lives and fulfill our vocations as Peter fulfilled his. It is always at every moment an act of mercy by way of Christ’s love to restore our relationship to God and fill our souls with sanctifying grace.