THERE ARE MANY DESCRIPTIVE TITLES ascribed to Christ in Scripture and the Tradition of the ancient Churches. He is portrayed as the Prince of Peace, the Good Shepherd, the Great High Priest, the Bread of life and so much more. Perhaps the most frequently heard of these depictions in Byzantine churches is the one which ends most liturgical services: “He is gracious and the Lover of mankind.”
Possibly the most important characteristic in Christ’s love for mankind is portrayed in St Mark’s description of the healing of the paralytic (Mark 2:1-12). He assures the sick man, “Son, your sins are forgiven you” (v. 5). The reaction of the scribes was unspoken but clear: “Why does this man speak blasphemies like this? Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (v. 7).
Feeding the hungry, helping the downtrodden are acts of love which anyone can perform, believer or unbeliever. God, however, has the monopoly on forgiving sins! That Christ proclaims the forgiveness of sins seems to equate Him with God, which the Jewish leaders saw as blasphemy.
Not only does Christ proclaim the forgiveness of sin: He does so by His word alone! In Jewish practice one had to submit to some sort of ritual in order to convey the need to be cleansed of sin. Before the temple at Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in AD 70, the Jews had a complex system of sacrifices expressing repentance and atonement for anything which they saw as rendering them unfit to stand in worship before the Lord. Depending on their status or ability, people would offer unblemished animals or birds to be killed and burned upon the altar, at least in part, their blood sprinkled before the holy place as a plea for mercy. On the annual Day of Atonement a bull and a goat would be sacrificed by the High Priest for his sins and the offenses of the entire nation.
John the Forerunner also had a rite to express repentance. As he described it, “I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance” (Matthew 3:11). Christ stands in stark contrast to the priests and prophets of Israel: by His word alone He forgives sin. Nothing is needed other than faith in Him!
With His Own Blood
The forgiveness which Christ accorded to the paralytic, to the sinful woman who wept at His feet (cf., [reference-pericope]Luke 7:36-50[/reference-pericope]) and to others during His earthy ministry is made available to the whole world by His death and resurrection. Throughout the New Testament we see the imagery of the temple sacrifices used to explain Christ as the One who forgives. St John the Forerunner proclaims Him to his own followers as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). St Paul calls Christ’s death “propitiation by His blood” (Romans 3:25). “We were reconciled to God through the death of His Son,” Paul teaches (Romans 5:10). God, Paul tells us, “… made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Corinthians 5:21).
The most developed expression of Christ as the ultimate sacrifice for our sins is found in the Epistle to the Hebrews. There, after a lengthy description of the temple and its priesthood, we read, “Christ came as High Priest of the good things to come, with the greater and more perfect tabernacle not made with hands, that is, not of this creation. Not with the blood of goats and calves, but with His own blood He entered the Most Holy Place once for all, having attained eternal redemption” (Hebrews 9:11-12). He is both the High Priest and the sacrifice who, once for all, restores mankind as fitting priests of God on earth.
Forgiveness in the Body of Christ
When the disciples marveled at the healings and miracles wrought by Christ during His earthly ministry, He promised them, “Most assuredly, I say to you, he who believes in Me, the works that I do he will do also; and greater works than these he will do, because I go to My Father” (John 14:12). Among other things, Christ has empowered the Church as His Body to continue proclaiming the remission of sins in His name. This ministry is exercised in a number of expressions by which we can experience God’s forgiveness in our life. To the degree that we enter into them we will find our lives centering on God to a greater degree. In our Tradition the following are emphasized:
Daily prayer for repentance, particularly the Jesus Prayer – The morning and evening prayers prescribed by the Church include prayers of repentance. The most basic of these is the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” God surely hears these prayers when offered from a contrite heart.
Regular Self-Reflection – Periodic, even daily, self-examination helps us to see the direction of our lives. Our entire existence should be lived in the light of the Holy Spirit. Honest self-examination helps us see the degree in which our lives are conformed to Christ’s.
A Relationship with a Confessor/Spiritual Father – Each person is in a different place in his or her journey. We may on occasion find thoughts in the Scriptures or the Fathers that touch our hearts but finding someone who knows you and knows the ways of Holy Tradition is like taking a giant step in the Christian life. The fullest dimension of spiritual guidance involves sharing our thoughts and yearnings, not just our sins, with this spiritual guide.
The Eucharist and the Remission of Sins – Several times during the Divine Liturgy we are reminded that the Eucharist is given to us “for the remission of sins.” To receive this gift we must approach “discerning the Body,” as St Paul says: sensing the depth of this Mystery and our unworthiness to take part in it. And so before receiving we say the prayer “I believe, Lord, and profess” specifically asking for the pardon of our offences – the deliberate and the indeliberate, whether committed knowingly or inadvertently – so that we may receive the remission of sins and eternal life in this mystery.
Observing the Church’s Fasts – The Fasts are another liturgical expression of repentance. Rearranging our lives in obedience to the Church’s weekly and seasonal fasts is a most practical way of affirming our commitment to life in Christ, a daily reminder that “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4).
The Mystery of Confession – This is the sacramental expression of repentance. This mystery appears in Christian history when people first realized that they had reneged on their baptismal commitment in a serious way. Confession was thus considered a “second baptism,” a starting over in the Christian life. Over the centuries it became more widely used and is considered appropriate today whenever a person feels the need for it, particularly:
- When a serious sin has been committed;
- When a habitual sin has overwhelmed the Christian;
- When a Christian has stopped growing spiritually and needs a reorientation of priorities.
Forgive Others to be Forgiven
Perhaps the most difficult part of seeking forgiveness is the one mandated by the Lord: “And whenever you stand praying, if you have anything against anyone, forgive him, that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses” (Mark 11:25). God’s forgiveness is for all; but it is only possible to those who forgive others in turn.