Acts 2:42-47; Psalm 117(118):2-4,13-15,22-24; 1 Peter 1:3-9; John 20:19-31
Jesus gives the Apostles the two-fold power to forgive sins and the power to retain them. His hope, and indeed the reason for which he poured out blood and water from his side on the Cross, is that the power to retain sins would never have to be used.
And, in fact, priests rarely, if ever, retain anyone’s sins. If anyone comes asking for sacramental absolution it’s usually because they want rid of sin and to start again. Very occasionally, there is someone whose situation is complicated and it’s not possible there and then to give absolution, but I won’t go into that here.
Sadly, though, there are some, possibly many, people who do retain sins – their own and those of others. I’m not speaking of people who won’t admit they sin yet think everyone else does. No, those I am speaking of don’t retain their sins in a conscious and deliberate way, but because they find it impossible to forgive themselves.
Even after years of repeatedly confessing their sins to the priest, it’s as if they simply cannot actually believe that they are forgiven.
That can often be for psychological reasons. Over thirty-nine years of priestly ministry in different parts of the world, I have come across a lot of such people. For example, those who have been emotionally, physically or sexually abused, especially over a period of time, can get locked into a destructive spiral of self-blaming. Even if, sitting down with them, you manage to get them to understand with their head that they were not to blame for their abuse, nevertheless the conviction in them runs much deeper that they still are and always will remain guilty.
And what then can happen is that they have trouble believing that they are not guilty of everything bad that happens to them or around them. Even worse, when they are actually responsible for something wrong, they can’t believe that the Lord will possibly forgive them for that because of all the other stuff they think they are guilty of.
The psychological and spiritual suffering of these people is immense. Immense! Terrible! They deserve our deepest respect and compassion. Sometimes, not even long years of psychotherapy or spiritual direction manage to shift that millstone of a dead-weight they experience inside. Regularly, such people end up getting physically ill as a result and while medication brings some relief, the basic problem remains.
In the face of this, the temptation might then be to say: “well it’s no good, nothing can be done, it just has to be accepted and the person has to make the best they can of a bad job.”
But to say that is to say that the power of the blood and water from the side of Christ is too weak for them. It’s to say that evil has conquered when we know that it has been defeated. For even if a millstone of such weight and complexity were lying for 1,000 years in the bedrock of someone’s soul, it is not too much for the mercy of Christ to lift up and throw into the depths of the sea.
For, to Christ, such a millstone is no different from the stone rolled across his tomb. As far as Jesus is concerned, our inner dead-weight of sin, guilt, and shame neither keeps Him out of our deepest self nor does it hold us in. The mercy of Jesus is like the command he gave for the stone to be taken away from the tomb of his friend Lazarus. His mercy calls out: Lazarus, come forth! untie him, let him go free!
To anyone listening to me who feels crushed and tied up in knots under a millstone of shame, blame, guilt, self-loathing and self-disgust, let the voice of the Divine Mercy reach you! Surrender and yield that awful weight of oppression and repression from your deepest soul to Him, for He will lift it as if it were nothing at all and shatter it to dust. Surrender to His majestic and merciful command: come forth, my friend, go free, be freed, know yourself eternally free and forgiven and feasted by my eternal love for you!
Now clearly this will not happen magically. Christ can do everything for us, but he will do nothing without us. When Christ called out to Lazarus, Lazarus could have stayed in the tomb. But he didn’t! He got up. He walked, however halting his steps, however dazed by the light now filling his eyes. We, too, all of us, will experience the power of Christ only by choosing to let him in, only by taking what small steps we can to go out towards him. We must trust him and distrust the voices inside us that have kept us imprisoned in guilt. No matter how loud they shout or quietly they whisper, we must patiently and consistently disregard them and tune in to the voice of Christ, listen to all the positive and lifegiving and affirming and upbuilding things he says to us in our heart or through the care and attention of others.
Let me say this to anyone who feels entombed by an endless and bottomless pit of guilty torment: Thomas doubted that Christ was risen until he touched His wounded hands and side. Are you now going to repeat Thomas’ mistake and doubt that those wounded hands can lift the crippling weight of shame and self-blame that has been ruining your life for years or decades? Do you seriously think that your misery is too much for the mercy of Christ? Are you going to let yourself be duped by the evil that is holding you down into thinking that the wounds in your soul cannot be healed by the wounds of his crucified and risen body?
Unafraid and with Christ at your side, go down into those depths within you, defiantly, and stand before that mire of misery that bleeds your heart and warps your life. Stand before it and address it: “you may think you own me, that you define me. No more, no longer!” And say with all the might you can muster and all the faith of your heart: “Jesus, I trust in You!” Say it without hesitation, without doubt and see if all that misery does not begin its long-delayed and shameful retreat from your soul which is now filled in its every corner with the light, both red and white, coming from the pierced heart of the Divine Mercy!