Let us open our hearts to the gift of reconciliation

During the general audience of Wednesday, 28 September, held in St Peter's Square at 11.00, Pope John Paul gave the following homily based on 1 John 4:9-12.

1. "In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him" (1 John 4:9).

At the beginning of everything, dear brothers and sisters, there is the love of God who, after having marvellously created us and called us into being together with all the creatures, has freed us and purified us from guilt through Jesus Christ who has expiated and cancelled our sins and reintegrated us in grace and in communion with God.

This act of God, through Jesus Christ, is so great and mysterious that there is no human word capable of expressing it adequately. The New Testament authors have called it the sacrifice of the new Pasch, the sacrifice of the New Covenant, the sacrifice of the great Expiation, but they knew that none of those terms could express in its totality Christ's redemptive act in which there was manifested the merciful design of God, paternally solicitous for our destiny. For this reason, besides the images of sacrifice, the New Testament authors had recourse to words and images drawn from their experience both religious and secular. We read, in fact, in the New Testament that Jesus has made expiation for us, that God has redeemed us in Christ, that he has bought us, made peace for us, that he has freed us, purified us, and washed us from our sins and impurities.

The gravity of sin

2. Let us fix our attention for a moment on some of these words. They indicate especially a condition from which we have been taken, a negative, obscure element of servitude, of corruption, of danger, of alienation, of ruin, of enmity, and a new state of holiness, of freedom and of life to which we have been transferred. From a state of death and of sin we have been transferred to a state of freedom and of grace.

To understand in depth the gift of salvation, one must therefore understand the gravity of sin, quanti ponderis sit peccatum (St Anselm). The Second Vatican Council, after presenting in no. 27 of the Constitution Gaudium et Spes a horrible list of modern sins, observes: "All these and the like are criminal: they poison civilization; and they debase the perpetrators more than the victims and militate against the honour of the Creator". The final words re-echo the well-known definition of sin as an offence against God by disobeying his law which is the law of love. Of all such disobediences on our part we are more or less aware. We all sin in some way and have injured God's honour and glory (cf. Rom 3:23).

Well, then, Christ's death frees us from our sins, since redemption is essentially the destruction of sin.

Some classical terms

3. We are now in a position to understand better the vocabulary of redemption, that is to say, the terms wherewith the New Testament indicated it, by bearing witness to the faith of the Apostles and of the first Christian community.

One of the most recurring expressions is that of redemption, apolytrosis (a liberation from). When we say that Jesus has "redeemed" us, we use an image which signifies freedom from the slavery, from the prison, that is, of sin. As God has freed his people from the servitude of Egypt, as a prisoner is freed by the payment of the ransom, as one recovers a precious thing which has fallen into the possession of others, so God has ransomed us through the Blood of Christ. As St Peter writes: "You know that you are ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your fathers, not with perishable things, such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot" (1 Pet 1:18, 19).

Another classical term is that of expiation: Jesus has expiated our sins.

St John, for example, writes: "God loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation for our sins" (1 Jn 4:10), "and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world" (1 John 2:2). In biblical language "expiation" means elimination, purification, destruction of sin and its ruinous effects. By means of Christ's death and of his total offering to the Father, man's sin is eliminated and destroyed, and man is purified and becomes pleasing to God.

4. But of all the ways to describe Christ's work there is one which is clearer and more intelligible to us, and it is that which is drawn from the experience of reconciliation: in Christ's death we are reconciled with God. The author of reconciliation is God who has taken the free initiative in it; Jesus Christ is its agent and mediator; and man is the one to whom it is addressed.

Reconciliation, indeed, comes down from God to man and touches him through Jesus Christ, by creating in him a new being, by making him pass from one mode of existence to another and by opening him to the possibility of reconciliation not only with God but with his brothers.

The Holy Year is aimed especially at this: an insistent and passionate invitation to open the heart to the divine gift of reconciliation.

L'Osservatore Romano October 3, 1983
Reprinted with permission