Dear People of God . . . I invite you . . . in the name of the Church,
to the observance of a holy Lent,
by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial;
and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.
(BCP p. 264)
Week II – Repentance
It often comes as a surprise to modern Episcopalians that the Book of Common Prayer encourages Confession, and provides two separate liturgical forms for its use. All editions of the prayer book, going back to 1549, have recognized the pastoral value of Confession and made provision for the practice. It is a sacramental act of Reconciliation of a Penitent because through an outward and visible action (a confession of sin) God forgives (through the Church, embodied by the priest). It is an opportunity for seeking forgiveness and the strength to succeed where one has failed in the past. It is an occasion of healing and joy because it allows us to actually experience God’s forgiveness of sin in real life and to be re-connected to the community through it.
From the very beginning, the Church was troubled by the problem of post-baptismal sin. What happens if those who had been cleansed in baptism and become a new creation, actually do sin? The Church dealt with the contradiction of sin within a holy people by excluding those who were guilty of gross sins from the community of the faithful – what we would call “excommunication.” This practice may seem harsh to us, but for early Christians it was rooted in the conviction that the Body of Christ was called to a radical standard of moral living, and gross failure to live according to these standards compromised the integrity of the community. It also presupposed that salvation is fundamentally communal – about being part of a redeemed community. To be cut off from the church was to be cut off from Christ.
However, the early Church was not heartless. If a person was cut off from the community, the Church was eager to restore repentant sinners to its fellowship. Therefore the Ash Wednesday liturgy in the Book of Common Prayer reminds us that from early times, Lent was . . . a time when those who, because of notorious sins, had been separated from the body of the faithful were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness, and restored to the fellowship of the Church. (BCP p.264) Through time and the influence of the Celtic and Anglo-Saxon Church, the daunting process of public confession and acts of penance (often delayed until the end of one’s life) turned into a less arduous and more pastoral approach in which restoration to fellowship and absolution followed a private act of confession.
According to the Catechism of the Episcopal Church,
Reconciliation of a Penitent, or Penance, is the rite in which those who repent of their sins may confess them to God in the presence of a priest, and receive the assurance of pardon and the grace of absolution. (BCP p 861)
We examine our conscience, confess our sins to God, make restitution and seek reconciliation with the community we have wronged. We show our love for God by assuming responsibility for our wrongdoing and seeking the forgiveness we need. God shows us how boundless God’s love is by forgiving us again and again. It is not the same thing as a session with an analyst. It is not self-analysis of feelings and motives. Temptations and emotions are part of being human and are not sinful in themselves. For a sin to be, there has to be a real knowledge of what we are doing and the free choice of doing it. Temptation is part of human life; sin is falling into it – acting upon it, giving in to it. In other words, sin is a choice and the test of our repentance is how willing we are to change our ways. Confession is not assurance that we won’t sin again. It is an opportunity to state in words and action that we will do our best not to lapse again; to express the desire to do better next time we are confronted with temptation.
It is necessary to prepare for Confession, not to rush in. Before meeting with the priest, it is important to find some time for reflection and look back at the year past and examine patterns of behavior, repeated choices of certain actions or lack thereof. It is hard to be vulnerable, to expose our souls, to hear ourselves admitting our imperfection, our lack of control. It is costly and it should be, because forgiveness is not cheap. It’s a way of sharing the cross of Christ.
Some may ask: why do I need a priest to forgive me?
You don’t. A priest doesn’t forgive you. Absolution comes from God and because of Jesus Christ it is freely given to those who truly repent and seriously intend to amend their lives. The priest represents the Church, the Body of Christ, and is empowered by the Church to perform the sacramental act. The priest will not chat and will not preach you a sermon but he/she may ask you a few questions to make sure you are thinking about sin in the right way. Everyone’s sins are the same, yours are not going to shock the priest or even embarrass your confessor. Their job is not to scold or judge or grade you on a scale, but to pronounce God’s forgiveness and to help you if possible. To hold you accountable on God’s behalf and to offer guidance on ways of restitution.
Remember that the secrecy of confession is morally absolute. You may choose any priest to hear your confession; if you prefer to use the rite with someone other than your parish priest, they will be happy to refer you to another priest who is experienced in ministering the sacramental rite.