Each year, I organize and lead a First Reconciliation workshop for parents/guardians and their child who is preparing for First Reconciliation. I always make sure to ask this question: “Boys and girls, who can tell me the three places that sin affects?” If I have done a good job with the activities and discussions, the children can usually quickly tell me that sin causes a rupture within “ourselves, with others and with God.” The children don’t typically think twice about naming these three areas. They are all aware of the “icky feelings” that they experience when they have done something wrong, even if they are the only ones who know of the wrongdoing. They are also well aware of the breakdown in their relationships with friends or family members when they have “messed up.” It just makes sense to them, then, that they’ve also wandered away from God. They understand that any sin, even a small one, does a violence to them in all 3 places, at the same time.
Although the rupturing, fragmenting nature of sin seems pretty obvious to the children, it is almost always a surprise to the adults in the room. Although many of the adults know that sin separates us from God and can also harm our relationship with others, they are not at all aware of the internal violence sin does within ourselves. And just as any sin, perpetrated over time, will inevitably lead to a permanent schism with family members and God, sin can also lead to deep internal fragmentation within our own psyche and soul. In other words, we are not at-one within ourselves, with others or with God. Instead, we are at-war in all three places. This, I would suggest, seems to be the primary state of many people today.
“But, there is good news!” as I remind everyone at the First Reconciliation workshop. That humans would trip and fall, often and hard, was not news to God. It was already foreseen and a remedy provided in the sacrament of Reconciliation. Designated, with the Anointing of the Sick, as one of the two healing sacraments of the Church, the sacrament of Reconciliation does just what its name says - it reconciles. It specifically addresses the three areas of brokenness listed above. First of all, we go and speak to a priest, who acts as the representative of God. Secondly, the priest, even if we don’t know him very well or he is visiting, acts as a representative of the community. He is the human face representing all those other humans we have wounded. Finally, the priest acts in the person of Jesus, the divine healer, the best friend, the one who can go deep into the hidden, inner room of our souls and pick up all the broken pieces within. Through the words and actions of the priest, the movement of the Holy Spirit, accompanied by our own true contrition, we are made whole. We return to being at-one within ourselves, at-one with our community and at-one with God. As the Catechism reminds us “All sacraments are an encounter with Christ, who is the original sacrament.” (CCC 1210) God alone forgives sins. Priests can forgive sins because Jesus has given them that authority. God’s desire for wholeness for his people, for reconciliation, is apparent throughout the Bible as he provides a way for this to happen.
There’s one more aspect of finding At-One-ment, however, that we should remember and that is Penance. At the end of every Reconciliation, the priest will give the person a Penance to do. Normally, that is to say a few prayers but it could also be to call someone or do something. Penance is not about hanging your head and beating your breast. It is “making restitution or satisfaction for a wrong that has been committed. . .It must be expressed in acts of charity and in solidarity with others through prayer, fasting” and acts of sacrifice. (CCC 1434-1439) Penance is the concrete action we take to express the freedom and conversion we have experienced through the love of God.
All this talk of At-One-Ment brings us back to consider Our Lady of the Atonement. It is truly something to ponder; because Mary never sinned, she therefore never experienced any type of separation within herself, from others or from God. This is one of the reasons why her intercession is so important. In fact, the Old English word atone literally means “in accord” or “one.” In most modern Bibles today, this word is simply translated as “reconciliation.” The title “Our Lady of the Atonement” could also be “Our Lady of Reconciliation.”
Standing beneath the cross on Calvary, Mary participated in her Son’s offering of himself back to the Father on our behalf. She prayed and suffered with him as he made the atonement, procuring our reconciliation. When we call on Mary today, we know that she will always lead us on the path to reconciliation, no matter how impossible a situation may seem. As we journey through the Eucharistic Revival, let’s make good and frequent use of the Sacrament of Reconciliation and ask Mary to guide us in acts of Penance that reflect our commitment to finding and living At-One-Ment, within ourselves, with others and with God.
Our Lady of the Atonement, Our Lady of Reconciliation, pray for us!