Years ago there was a doctor in Scotland, a devout Christian, who was very lenient with his poor patients; if they found it difficult or impossible to pay what they owed him, he turned to their page in his ledger and wrote in red ink the word “Forgiven,” thereby completely absolving them from their debt. After he died, the executors of the doctor’s estate found that most of the pages in the ledger were marked in such a manner, and they decided the estate would be much more valuable if all, or at least some, of these debts were collected. This attempt, of course, was a complete failure; the poor patients claimed they had no money, or refused to pay a debt their late doctor had already cancelled. So the executors took their case to a local judge, but when he examined the ledger, he immediately dismissed the case, saying, “There is no court in the land that could enforce payment of these accounts marked ‘Forgiven’” (Anthony Castle, Quotes & Anecdotes, p. 183). So it is with the judgment of God. When we’ve honestly and sincerely confessed our sins and He has marked our account “Forgiven,” that’s the final word on the matter—and this simple but undying truth is part of the Good News of our faith, and a reason for us to be filled with hope and joy and peace.
No other religion emphasizes God’s mercy as much as Christianity, and no other religion makes this mercy as practical and available as Catholicism. The Israelites believed in God’s power and willingness to forgive and quote the Lord as saying “It is I . . . who wipe out your offenses; your sins I remember no more.” However, even though they were God’s Chosen People, the Jews could not have expected God to be so merciful that He would send His Son to die for the salvation of all people. That’s why the Lord says, “Remember not the events of the past, the things of long ago consider not; see, I am doing something new!” St. Paul assures us that God’s promise is utterly reliable; His word to His children is not sometimes “yes” and other times “no,” but always “yes.”
Jesus Christ is the ultimate expression of divine love and mercy, and we see in the Gospel that He was eager to express this through His forgiveness of the paralyzed man’s sins. He was fully aware that the man’s four friends went to the trouble of carrying him up on the roof, opening a hole, and lowering down on his mat primarily because they believed and hoped Our Lord would heal him. Jesus intended to do so, but He wanted to put first things first. He forgave the man’s sins, and only then, to demonstrate His authority to do this, physically restored the man’s ability to walk. Sometimes sin, because of its corrosive and destructive nature, harms not only our souls but also our bodies, and ultimately leads to death. Jesus is the Conqueror of sin and death. Through Him all things are made new, and through the Sacraments of His Church we can become a new creation.
A Protestant physician in Switzerland was once called upon to treat a young woman who was seriously ill and possibly near death; at the same time, because she was a Catholic, a priest was called to hear her confession and anoint her. The doctor examined her before and after the priest’s visit, and was amazed at what he saw. The patient had previously been terrified of dying, but was afterwards calm and peaceful, and the following day her fever suddenly broke, and she fully recovered. From then on, whenever the doctor described this event, he always said with sincere admiration, “Behold the power of Confession among Catholics!” (Tonne, Five-Minute Homilies, p. 74). Our deepest human need is to be loved, but because we are sinners, this need for love goes hand-in-hand with the need to know that our sins are forgiven. We as Catholics are uniquely privileged in this regard. While we know that God will instantly forgive us as soon as we sincerely ask in our hearts for His pardon, and while our venial sins are forgiven whenever we worthily receive Holy Communion, we also have the confessional as a tribunal of mercy. In the Sacrament of Reconciliation miracles of grace can occur; God restores our relationship with Him, fills us with peace, and marks the word “Forgiven” on the ledger page listing our offenses.
The holy season of Lent is a time for us to acknowledge, even more than usual, our sinfulness and our trust in divine mercy. On Ash Wednesday we receive ashes on our foreheads as a sign of our utter reliance on God for life and for forgiveness. On the Sundays of Lent we’ll hear in the Scripture readings how Jesus can help us overcome temptation and sin, and receive the nourishment our souls need in the Holy Eucharist. On the Fridays of Lent we’ll abstain from meat as a practical expression of remorse, and have the opportunity to remember and reflect on how Jesus suffered for us by praying the Stations of the Cross.
Throughout these upcoming six weeks we’ll have the chance to show the Lord our sorrow for our sins, and our desire to grow closer to Him, by our prayers and our individual acts of penance. Most importantly, throughout Lent we’ll have numerous opportunities to receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation, in which our sins are forgiven, our relationship with our Father is restored and renewed, and our hearts are filled with a peace unlike anything this world can offer.
In his hatred for us, Satan wants to accuse and shame us, and would love nothing more than to stamp our souls with the words “Sinner!,” “Cursed!,” and “Condemned!” Jesus assures us, however, that God desires to mark our souls with the word “Forgiven,” and if He does, that’s the final word on the matter. In order to receive the healing, freedom, and peace for which we yearn, let us base our lives on this promise.