The Sacrament of Penance and Reconcilation — Part Two

A bit of history, wherein we are reminded of the crucial role of tradition in our faith.

The scriptural basis of the sacrament seems clear enough — for a pithy explanation and clear explication of the theology of the sacrament see Jeff Vehige at The Catholic Witness, whose discussion starts with this passage:

On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being shut where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’ When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.’ And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (Jn 20.19-23).

In addition, the sacrament is rooted in Jesus’ ministry as he walked the Earth: he healed and he forgave sins. This is what Jesus does, and it is what the Church must do in order to be the Body of Christ.

If you joined the early church, you joined as an adult. When you were baptized, your sins were washed away and you were expected to stop sinning. “Go and sin no more,” as Jesus tells us, and Paul makes clear that Christians were expected to do exactly that. And in such small communities, it was not easy to sin in private.

The persecution of Christians made for a special problem however. The martyred saints are saints for a reason–they overcame the very human and understandable temptation to apostacy (“Christian? Who me? Thank Baal, I’m no Christian!”). Many early Christians did not–they sinned in the most serious way, yet they wanted to continue to be disciples. These early Christians needed to have their sin washed away again, with the baptism of repentance.

Early Christians who committed one of the Big Three Sins (murder, adultery, apostacy) could of course be forgiven–this is central to Christ’s message–but their absolution and reconciliation to the community was a long and arduous process. Something like being a catechumen but a lot less pleasant. After a private confession to a bishop, the penitent had some work to do:

Start wearing the sackcloth and ashes
Get a sponsor to vouch for your repentance and your progress
Avoid communion (as the penitent had effectively excommunicated himself)
Instead of participating in worship with community, stand in the vestibule as others go in and ask that they pray for you and your conversion.

After a period of some years , when the community was ready to take you back and vouch for your genuine reconversion, you would complete the baptism of repentance, after which you were again expected to go and sin no more. If you slipped up again, boo hoo for you. The scandal you created by your ongoing sinfulness was a clear and present danger to the fledgling Christian community and a barrier to the Church living its mission in the world.

Thus certain savvy would-be Christians (**cough** Constantine **cough**) saved their baptism for late in life. The baptism of initiation was much, much easier than the baptism of repentance: better to wait until you could be relatively sure your sinning days were behind you– though not so long that death was upon you — before taking the plunge (literally!).

Christian legalism — plus ça change, eh?

End of Part II

Go to Part I

Part III coming soon.

Published in: on March 28, 2007 at 4:12 pm  Leave a Comment  

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