As we prepare for the final leg of our journey toward the great events of Holy Week – the passion, death, and resurrection of our Lord and Saviour – today we celebrate a Mass for the Forgiveness of Sins (RM No. 38b; Preface of IV of Sundays in Ordinary Time), what is traditionally called a Missa ad petendam compunctionem cordis, for begging compunction of the heart, or a Mass for the Gift of Tears.
In the prophecy of Daniel which we have heard in our first reading, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego rebuke King Nebuchadnezzar, saying ‘If our God, the one we serve, is able to save us from the burning fiery furnace and from your power, O king, he will save us; and even if he does not, then you must know, O king, that we will not serve your god or worship the statue you have erected’. This is an excellent example of Christian courage. In the world in which we live we are presented not only with literal false gods, but with other idols that are presented to us as necessary for the fullness of life. When we sin through adherence to these false gods, we commit idolatry and sin against the first commandment.
When we do this, we distance ourselves – through our own free will – from the covenant which is established with the Lord through our baptism. In the Sacrament of Holy Baptism, we are incorporated into the Church. As members of the mystical Body of Christ, we are joined with the Lord in his passion and death, and also in his resurrection and glorification in the heavenly Jerusalem. Through our sin, we put that relationship to death, and break the bonds that bind us with the saints in the fullness of communion with the Most Holy Trinity. That is why such serious sin is called ‘mortal’.
Sin, then, imprisons us in death rather than allowing us to find the true freedom that comes with life in Christ, ultimately in eternity. This is why, in the Gospel according to Saint John, the Lord says, ‘I tell you most solemnly, everyone who commits sin is a slave. […] the slave’s place in the house is not assured, but the son’s place is assured’. Through our unimpaired communion with the Church through grace, we are one with Christ – God the Son – and so we can be ‘sure and certain’ of an eternal inheritance with him. When that relationship or communion is broken, such a guarantee evades us.
This is why, in this season when we prepare for the Lord’s triumphant entrance into the earthly Jerusalem, consider his harrowing of hell itself, and the final victory he achieves over death, we are called to consider where we find ourselves in the spiritual and interior life. We are all in need of God’s mercy and forgiveness, in order to be restored to that communion and life; we pray in this Mass for the gift of tears – of sorrow and contrition – that we may bring ourselves to a true sense of penitence for our sin, and have the courage and conviction to seek out forgiveness through the Sacrament of Reconciliation and Penance, on our knees in the confessional.
May God grant that our hardened hearts may be softened by his love for us, and that in a renewed knowledge of our need for his mercy, we are compelled for love of him to seek the forgiveness we so desire and need.