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The Eucharist as Sacrament of Forgiveness
THE EUCHARIST AS SACRAMENT OF FORGIVENESS
Meals with Jesus often provided the opportunity for reconciliation and forgiveness.
“Simon, do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. … You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love.” (Luke 7: 44-47)
Peter’s denial of Jesus is forgiven and his vocation renewed at breakfast on a Galilean beach (John 21: 15-17)
In the same way, those who eat and drink with Christ at the Eucharistic table are forgiven and reconciled.
St Ambrose emphasised this aspect of the Eucharist in the fourth century: “If we proclaim the Lord’s death, we proclaim the forgiveness of sins. If, as often as his blood is poured out, it is poured for the forgiveness of sins, I should always receive it so that it may always forgive my sins. Because I always sin, I should always have a remedy. “ (On the Sacraments IV)
It is not difficult to find examples of texts and gestures in the Order of Mass that express sorrow and ask for forgiveness.
One of the introductory elements of the Mass is the penitential rite. This may take the form of the community saying together the “I confess…” (confiteor) followed by the kyrie or “Lord, have mercy”.
Alternatively, and more commonly, a set of three invocations address to Christ and incorporating the kyrie is used. The priest concludes the penitential rite with the absolution.
During the “Glory to God” we pray “Lord, God, Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world: have mercy on us”. These words are repeated in the “Lamb of God” which is sung during the breaking of the bread and pouring of the wine.
In the Lord’s Prayer we ask that our sins might be forgiven and that we might be delivered from evil. Immediately before receiving communion we say: “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed”. And, of course, the sharing of communion itself forgives sin.
The Catechism lists forgiveness of sin as one of the fruits of Holy Communion: “The body of Christ we receive in Holy Communion is ‘given up for us’, and the blood we drink ‘shed for the forgiveness of sins’. For this reason the Eucharist cannot unite us to Christ without at the same time cleansing us from past sins and preserving us from future sins”. (CCC # 1393)
Penance is the church’s special sacrament of pardon, and people conscious of having committed grave sin should celebrate reconciliation before presenting themselves for communion. But perhaps we need to recapture the understanding that was strong in the early church before a separate sacrament of penance developed, namely, that our participation at Mass grants forgiveness through word, gesture and sacrament.
The woman who anointed Jesus’ feet had her sins forgiven; ‘hence’ she showed great love. Our sins are forgiven through participation in the Eucharist. We are called in turn to be people who offer forgiveness and reconciliation to others.