“Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.”
1 Timothy 1:15
There is a singular moral fitness in the manner in which Christ redeemed us. In this stupendous mystery of divine love, it was proper that man should suffer because man had sinned. Man had sinned by disobedience inspired by pride. It was fitting that Christ should atone for man’s sin by obedience unto the death of the Cross, and by a humiliation deep enough to reduce Him to the level of a mere “worm and no man; the reproach of men and the outcast of the people.” It was eminently proper that Christ should die, because death was the punishment for man’s sin.
The amazing love that prompted our redemption, the self-sacrificing love that endured the most agonizing tortures for sinners who, far from having a claim on that love, deserved only eternal chastisement — this appeals to our finest sensibilities, stirs most profoundly our natural inclinations, and stimulates most intensely our own affections. No passion moves us more readily and more deeply than love. And when love is gratuitous, wholly disinterested, when we have insulted Him who loves us, and, instead of condemning us forever, He suffers and dies for us, words cannot express our wonderment.
It is “the charity of God . . . poured forth in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who is given to us” that establishes “peace with God, through our Lord Jesus Christ.” The death of Christ is the charity of God most impressively manifested. “For scarce for a just man will one die; yet perhaps for a good man someone would dare to die. But God commendeth His charity toward us, because when as yet we were sinners according to the time, Christ died for us.”
The love of Christ in His sufferings and death excites to rapturous ecstasy the most sublime of the passions, and man gives himself to God. Hence the great apostle, recounting the reasons for our hope in Christ, joyously exclaims: “If, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of His Son, much more, being reconciled, shall we be saved by His life. And not only so, but also we glory in God, through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom we have now received reconciliation.”
In the revelation of a great mystery, it is characteristic of Divine Providence to select as its instrument of communication one whose soul is best suited to receive its truth.
St. Paul, in his conversion, is a striking illustration of this fact. Hurled to earth at the climax of his insanely relentless persecution of the Christians, he is at once changed into a docile servant of God’s love; that love elicits a response from the deepest depths of his ardently passionate nature and inspires him with lifelong gratitude to his eternal Benefactor. Henceforth, he becomes the eloquent preacher of the wondrous effects of repentance in the soul of the most hardened sinner through the mercy which God lavished so generously upon man in the mystery of the Redemption.
This truth is the substance of his letter. On this theme, his language thrills. His words to the Ephesians on this subject burn with his inspiration: “God, who is rich in mercy, for His exceeding charity wherewith He loved us, even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together in Christ, by whose grace you are saved, and hath raised us up together and hath made us sit together in the heavenly places, through Christ Jesus, that He might show in the ages to come the abundant riches of His grace, in His bounty toward us in Christ Jesus.”
The realization of the love of Christ in His Passion is as necessary to the life of repentance as the soul is to the life of the body. David, the illustrious penitent of the Old Law, is a notable exponent of this truth. The Passion is the soul of his psalms. His nature, if we are to judge from his repeated allusions to the sufferings of Christ, was made exquisitely sensitive, and thus prepared for the reception of the priceless gift of “a contrite and humble heart”; through his habitual meditation on the Redeemer’s transcendent love for men, his sins were washed away.
In the New Law, the thief on the cross is the most luminous example of deep, sincere repentance. His keenly searching insight into the eternal meaning of Christ’s death, the effect of his correspondence with grace, revealed to him the magnitude of the Savior’s love for sinners: it made him a saint.
Another pointed illustration of the love of Christ in His Passion is our Lord’s insistent question to St. Peter: “Lovest thou me?” Christ aimed to make his penitence perennial by arousing in him an intensely ardent reciprocal love for the Master, whose love in the supreme sacrifice had first inspired the sorrow that suffused His apostle’s soul.
Once the perception of Christ’s love is awakened, it must deepen. And the more it deepens, the greater will be our detestation of sin, which caused the Savior’s terrible giving of Himself for sinners. As our hatred of sin increases, so much the greater will be our progress in true repentance. Penitence, therefore, flows from our appreciation of Christ’s love for us in His sufferings, and consequently the strength of our repentance must be measured by the keenness of our appreciation of that love.
Reflection upon the Passion cannot but excite in our souls “the sorrow that is according to God.” The malice of sin is best studied in the school of the Cross. Sin humiliated Christ beyond human comprehension. In taking flesh, the eternal God “emptied Himself.” But, were it not for our sins, pain and sorrow might never have touched Him as man. The majesty of the Godhead might, in all its eternal splendor, have shone through the entrancing beauty of the perfect manhood.
The life of Christ on earth might have been painless. But what a change man’s sin wrought in the Redeemer! The mental anguish within, the physical torture without, the withering sorrow, the solitary loneliness, the long, sharp thorns driven into the skull, the bones laid bare by the steel whips, the wasted form covered with gashes, crimsoned with blood, the hands and feet pierced with nails — what a heartrending figure, what a “Man of Sorrows”42 our sins made of Christ! The light and the peace, the joy and the rest, that might have been His as He walked with men, were turned into darkness, pain, and agonizing death.
As often as we sin grievously, we “crucify again to ourselves the Son of God and make Him a mockery.” Externally, our sins cannot affect Christ, cannot nail Him to the Cross; but internally, He can still experience the sinner’s malice, his treachery, his ingratitude. The sinner can still wound the Heart that has loved man so much, can still cry out: “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!”
Man can, by mortal sin, also frustrate the effect of Christ’s Passion and death. He can void the life of grace and all its consequences, which the Savior bought for us so dearly. The direct results of the soul’s correspondence with grace are the thrilling joy and the yearning for spiritual progress, which seize the soul in the eternal embrace of divine love and make it the habitation of its God, for “if anyone love me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our abode with him.” Also a result of the soul’s correspondence with grace is the life of grace itself, which adorns the soul with ravishing beauty in virtue of its most intimate union with God. All this, sin blights, crushes, and stills. Sin in its deadly evil is the great enemy of the Cross of Christ, opposing the designs of His eternal pity, robbing the soul of the fruit of His sufferings, and trampling underfoot His Precious Blood.
In every true penitent, as the realization of these effects deepens, the appreciation of divine forgiveness intensifies. And as the appreciation of divine forgiveness intensifies, repentance, man’s real life, develops, impelling him to forsake sin and to imitate more closely Him who delivered Himself for sinners.
The abiding consciousness of God’s love manifested in His constant act of forgiveness is the measure of the growth of the life of true penitence. How often, in the sacrament of mercy and reconciliation, does Christ’s mercy embrace our souls! How often does the Precious Blood flow from the Savior’s Heart, that source of perpetual pardon, into the soul of the sinner, washing away his sins and imparting to him a peaceful newness of life through the revival in him of the effects of the Passion!
Each sacramental absolution is an act of love emanating from the divine Heart, throbbing with love for sinners. In the Lord’s Prayer, we are taught to have daily recourse to this eternal forgiving love. As the waves of the ocean follow one another in ceaseless succession to break, one at a time, on the shore, so the Savior’s love ever pleads before the throne of mercy, and we experience God’s continual forgiveness separately each time it calms our troubled souls by remitting, in the fullness of its compassion, all their guilt, and restoring their supernatural life. Not the fact of forgiveness or our need of it, but the realization of the reiterated act of forgiveness is the principle of the growth of the true penitential spirit.
Tenderness, moreover, which is the striking feature of repentance, develops from a consciousness of this unceasing pardon. Bodily chastisements, although great in their power to sanctify us, make for austerity of character and often minister to our vanity and self-sufficiency. But sorrow for sin born of Christ’s eternal mercy to sinners renders us intensely and perpetually penitent, invigorates our souls with divine energy, quickens in us the sense of our total dependence upon God, and thus strengthens our devotion by establishing it on the rock of humility.
It is therefore a mighty defense against temptation, for sorrow for past sin inspires in us a salutary fear, and hence safeguards us against the commission of future sin. We can best imitate that tender compassion of Christ, which springs from His sorrow over the enormity of sin, by deepening our appreciation of the evil of our transgressions and of the greatness of God’s love evinced by His merciful forgiveness of them.
As we grow in this beautiful, expressive tenderness, we become more patient with our neighbor’s weakness, more sympathetic with him in his struggle for righteousness, and more merciful to him when he sins.
And oh, how urgently we need to learn this lesson! We are, after God has forgiven us, prone to plume ourselves upon our restored powers as if we were absolutely sure of never sinning again, and to frown upon and condemn our fellowman who is still the victim of sin. We may wish even to usurp God’s place and to subject our neighbor to what we unjustly label our “just indignation,” by expressing to him, perhaps very unkindly and very crudely, our censorious judgment of his conduct, falsely reasoning that our caustic appraisal of the sinner redounds to the greater glory of God.
Our own freedom from sin is often the measure of our intolerance of a brother sinner. The higher our exaltation by grace, the more liable we are to be niggardly in sympathy for the fallen. When we need mercy, we are willingly merciful. The realization of our own shortcomings may beget forbearance with the faults of others. Sinners are very broad in their interpretation of sin. But when we leave the crooked highway of sin and proceed along the straight path of virtue, then should we enlarge our sympathy for the weaknesses of others; the more we pity them, and the kinder and the gentler we are with their infirmities, the more we develop our own penitence.
We can best learn to know and to develop compassion for others by daily meditation on the Passion. Our appreciation of the love that moved Christ toward us is the touchstone of the growth of our compassion toward others.
Forbearance with the imperfect must not, of course, diminish our sorrow for their weakness. Largeness of sympathy for the sinner does not mean a palliation of his sins. Nevertheless, we sorely need to cultivate the spirit of considerateness for the sinner. We fulfill the law of God by mutual forbearance. “Bear ye one another’s burdens, and so you shall fulfill the law of Christ.”
We cannot imitate Christ unless we are led by His spirit. His mercy did not censure but embraced our sin-stained souls and snatched them from eternal ruin. And even after having forgiven us, He does not upbraid us, but is infinitely patient with us, throwing the mantle of His love over our innumerable sins, ever pleading with His eternal Father for us, and drawing us by His marvelously magnetic mercy to surrender ourselves wholly to Him who “emptied Himself” for us.
O Infinite Lover of men, warm our cold hearts
with the fire of Thy divine love.
Thou, O God, art love, and Thou hast said:
“By this shall all men know that you are my disciples:
if you have love one for another.”
Give us the fullness of Thy spirit of forbearance
in dealing with our fellowman, and touch us with
the tenderness of Thy gentle forgiveness of his faults
so that, loving him for Thy sake,
we may abide in Thy love here
and reign eternally with Thee hereafter.
What a power is this forgiving love! The more we feel its mature effects, the more we yearn to impart it to others. Diffusive by nature, it spreads from soul to soul, binding them together in a community of Christlike forgetfulness of the past, inspiring them with hope for the future, and perfecting their love of God through the consciousness of a more intimate union with Him. When this spirit of repentance is rich, full, and free, we become the elect of God and realize more fully that all men are brothers, and that therefore the need of our neighbor is the same as our own.
Thus St. Paul says: “Put ye on therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved. . . mercy, benignity, humility, modesty, patience; bearing with one another, and forgiving one another, if any have a complaint against another. Even as the Lord hath forgiven you, so do you also. But above all these things, have charity, which is the bond of perfection.” The great apostle states the infallible effect of such conduct: “And let the peace of Christ rejoice in your hearts, wherein also you are called in one body.”
Thus we become co-laborers with Christ, humble instruments in His hands, His representatives in bringing into the souls of our brethren the eternal results of the Redemption; renewing, by our spirit of forgiveness and forbearance, the love of God in their hearts, and enlivening our own hope of salvation by energizing them with the confidence that must finally issue in endless joy: “For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of His Son; much more, being reconciled, shall we be saved by His life.”
Editor’s note: This article is adapted from a chapter in Fr. Kane’s How to Make a Good Confession, which is available from Sophia Institute Press.