Catholics can easily recall when Jesus instituted the Sacrament of the Eucharist: during the first Mass, which began during the Last Supper with the words of consecration and finished the following afternoon when Jesus gave His Body and poured out His Blood for us on Calvary.
Far fewer Catholics, however, know when Jesus instituted the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation, which may be one of the reasons some today take it for granted. He did it on the evening He rose from the dead, which shows just how crucial Jesus considered it in His salvific mission and manifested what the Sacrament of Reconciliation is meant to bring about.
Just as in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, whenever we return to the Father’s house through this Sacrament, the Father rejoices because his “son who was dead has come to life again” (Lk 15:24). Jesus wanted explicitly to link our resurrection through this Sacrament to His resurrection from the dead. Every reconciliation is meant to be a resurrection.
So He walked through the closed doors of the room where the ten apostles were huddled together. He first words were, “Peace be with you.” He had become incarnate to establish the definitive peace treaty between God and the human race through the forgiveness of our sins and He was about to commission the apostles to continue this very mission.
“Just as the Father sent Me,” he said, “so I send you!” Jesus was sent by God the Father as the Lamb of God to take away the sins of the world, and Jesus was sending the apostles out to forgive sinners of their sins one-by-one. Since “no one can forgive sins but God alone” (Mk 2:7), however, Jesus had to give them God’s power to fulfill this mission. So He breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”
Then he gave them instructions and power that point to the structure of the Sacrament of Confession as we know it: “Those whose sins you forgive are forgiven; those whose sins you retain are retained.” Jesus didn’t give them the ability to read minds or hearts; therefore, the only way that they would know which sins to absolve or hold would be if individual sinners told them their sins.
Just as three days before Jesus had made them His instruments to give us His Body and Blood, so He was making them His ambassadors through whom He would forgive our sins.
These two sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist are intrinsically related. Just as a loving mother cleans and feeds a child, so God through these sacraments wipes us clean of our sins and fills us with supernatural nourishment.
We see that connection in the way Jesus celebrated the Last Supper, washing the apostles’ feet before He gave them his Body and Blood.
As Pope Benedict emphasized in his Holy Thursday homily 15 years ago and in the second volume of his acclaimed “Jesus of Nazareth,” Jesus was washing not merely their soles but their souls, symbolically cleansing them of their sins for the reception of the Eucharist as well as their future exercise of the priesthood and celebration of the Eucharist.
“Jesus’ gesture,” Pope Benedict wrote, “was a ‘sacrament’ (a visible sign) of the entire mystery of Christ — His life and death — in which He draws close to us…[and] truly ‘cleanses’ us, renewing us from within.”
In commenting on the meaning of Jesus’ words to Peter that He had to wash his feet otherwise He would have no part in him — but not his head and hands because he had been “already bathed” — Pope Benedict stated, “The complete bath … can only mean Baptism, by which man is immersed into Christ once and for all.” In Christian life, the sacramental gift of Baptism “constantly requires completion: ‘washing of feet.’ … We’ve been bathed in Baptism but we need to be cleansed from the contact we have with the various ‘filth’ we encounter in the world, so that we may be ready to enter into divine worship.”
That’s what Jesus does in the Sacrament of His Mercy, where Jesus is “continually on His knees at our feet and … carries out the service of … purification, making us capable of God,” said the recently-deceased pontiff. The basin in which He washes us is “His love, ready to face death. Only love has that purifying power that washes the grime from us and elevates us to God’s heights.” This is the means by which Jesus, “having loved His own who were in the world, loved them to the extreme” (Jn 13:1).
The Eucharist Jesus instituted immediately afterward is a continuation of that extreme mercy. Jesus made the connection explicit in commanding the apostles to receive and drink the chalice of His Blood, poured out for the remission of sins, and to do it in his memory. On Calvary the following day, He culminated His priestly sacrifice, begging the Father to forgive those for whose sins He was dying “for they know not what they do.” And then He made the apostles capable of washing others’ feet in this same sacramental way the first time He encountered them after the Resurrection.
As we enter more deeply into the Eucharistic Revival, it’s important to grow in our awareness of the connection between the Eucharist and Reconciliation, between devotion to Jesus’ sacramental self-giving and his sacramental mercy. Both devotions were explicitly requested by the Lord.
It wasn’t enough in the 12th and 13th centuries, for example, that the truth about the Real Presence of Jesus in the Holy Eucharist be grasped intellectually. Jesus desired that this reality pass from our heads to our hearts to our knees, and through St. Juliana of Liège, the miracle of Orvieto and Bolsena, St. Thomas Aquinas and other instruments, asked for the feast of Corpus Christi, to bring about true Eucharistic piety and appreciation for Christ in what He would later call the “sacrament of love.”
He did a similar thing with His Mercy through His apparitions to St. Faustina Kowalska in the 1930s, asking her to remind us of what He emphasized in the Gospel: that we’re sinners who need His mercy, and therefore need to trust in it, ask for it, and receive it, and share it with others.
Through her He called us to live five new devotions by which we could more deeply assimilate all of these realities.
He asked that a feast of His Divine Mercy be established on the Second Sunday of Easter, prepared for by a Novena beginning Good Friday. He showed her an image of Divine Mercy, with water and blood flowing from His pierced side — as signs of the connection between Baptism and the Eucharist to His Mercy — and asked her to spread its veneration. He called on all of us to unite ourselves in prayer to Him on the cross at 3 p.m. each day. And He taught us to pray the beautiful Chaplet of Divine Mercy, which explicitly links our prayers for God’s mercy to Jesus in the Eucharist, as we offer to the Eternal Father His dearly beloved Son’s Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity, in atonement for our sins and those of the world.
His request for the establishment of the Feast of Divine Mercy was fulfilled and decreed by St. John Paul II during the canonization Mass of St. Faustina in 2000 and celebrated the first time the following year. On this day, Jesus promised that “all the divine floodgates through which graces flow” will be open and then specified two: “The soul that will go to Confession and receive Holy Communion shall obtain complete forgiveness of sins and punishment.”
As we start the Novena on Good Friday and pray through Divine Mercy Sunday, it is a great time for us — especially during the Eucharistic Revival — to recognize the intrinsic connection between the two sacramental floodgates of Confession and the Holy Eucharist and grow in gratitude and love for Jesus in both.