You could hardly find a better description of what is going on in the sacrament of Reconciliation than this passage from 1 Corinthians 5:17-21:
Therefore, if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. So we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We beseech you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
As we saw last time, Christ’s miraculous ministries of reconciliation and healing are a) closely linked and b) meant to be continued by his Church. That is why Paul sees himself as an ambassador for Christ who is reconciling the world to himself.
In John 20:22-23, we find the Evangelist recording the moment at which Jesus handed on the baton of this ministry of reconciliation to his apostles:
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.”
One basic question people often have about reconciliation is “Why bother?” Why not just take your sins to God directly? Who needs a middleman? The answer is found in the cry of a little child who crawled into bed with her parents one night during a thunderstorm. Didn’t she know Jesus was there in the room with her, asked her mother? “Yes,” she said, “But I need somebody with skin on.”
We need somebody with skin on, particularly when we are facing our own sins. We need somebody who can listen and hold us accountable lest we delude ourselves. We also need to hear — with our ears — that we are forgiven since the mind is a notorious echo chamber that fosters both presumption and despair. And so Jesus empowers His priests to forgive sins in His name. The Word became flesh and He still comes to us with skin on.
This enfleshed nature of our Faith is also why the sacrament is called “Penance”. It’s not, of course, that doing penance earns you forgiveness. On the contrary, as the words of absolution themselves make clear,
God the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son, has reconciled the world to Himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
Nothing in there saying “Because you did penance, you have earned the mercy of God.” Mercy is his free gift for the asking.
And yet, we also do penance. Why?
Luke 19:8 gives us a pretty good idea:
And Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have defrauded any one of anything, I restore it fourfold.” And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham.”
Zacchaeus was a tax collector: a man universally despised by his neighbors as both a collaborator and a profiteer from the sufferings of his fellow Jews. He worked for the Romans and made his living by adding a large “middle man fee” to the grinding burden of taxes his masters required of the people of Judea. When he repented of his rapacious ways, he did not say to himself “As long as I am spiritually reconciled with God in my heart, it doesn’t matter what is happening in my exterior and bodily life.” He knew that if he did not enflesh, by his actions, the grace he had received then he had not received any real grace at all. In short, he knew the word of mercy he received had to be made flesh just as the Word had been made flesh. It’s exactly the same point that James 2:14-26 makes when he tells us:
What does it profit, my brethren, if a man says he has faith but has not works? Can his faith save him? If a brother or sister is ill-clad and in lack of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what does it profit? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. But some one will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder. Do you want to be shown, you shallow man, that faith apart from works is barren? Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he offered his son Isaac upon the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by works, and the scripture was fulfilled which says, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness”; and he was called the friend of God. You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone. And in the same way was not also Rahab the harlot justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way? For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so faith apart from works is dead.
Note that Jesus doesn’t look terribly displeased with Zacchaeus when he does an act of penance after repenting his sins as a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner. Instead, Jesus seems to be under the distinct impression that it is only common sense that a sinner who repents his sins will do something to amend the damage, and that this is what anybody who has had love rekindled in his heart would want to do. The Church thinks the same thing and so insists that reconciliation needs to be incarnate in our actions by some act of penance. Just as the Word became flesh, so our love must become flesh.
That’s why it is so silly to claim (as some Christians actually do, amazingly) that the need for penance in the sacrament of reconciliation is a system of “works salvation” condemned by God. You may as well say that eating is the opposite of hunger and not its obvious goal and fulfillment. You may as well say that kissing is a blot and a blight on the pure and unsullied love of man and woman. All normal love strains to be enfleshed. Any love that does not seek to be turned into something concrete, solid, and tangible is not love at all. That is why the proof of God’s love for us is not a mathematical theory or an idea, but real blood dripping off of a real wooden cross. Our penitent love of God and neighbor must likewise take real form and not remain a phantom in the ghostly realm of theory.