Friday, February 12, 2016

The Healing Power of Confession

The meaning and use of sacramental confession in Western Christianity has long been undermined by a pervasive legalism that both distorts the origin of this rite and undermines its proper, regular (and joyous) use today.

The Reconciliation of a Penitent (a.k.a. "confession") is based on Christ's commission to the Apostles to "bind and loose" sins on earth, thus continuing in the Church Our Lord's work of reconciling God and humanity through declaring forgiveness and speaking truthfully about the nature and character of sin.  As part of their ordination, bishops and priests are given the authority to declare God's forgiveness.  This is exercised in Liturgy though the absolution following general confession, as well as at sacramental confession

Originally, the Church knew nothing of the practice of making a confession alone to a priest. In the early period of Christianity (and in some traditions still), confession was made out loud to the entire assembly. This demonstrates a deep and courageous understanding of the Church as Christ's redemptive Body at work in the world, and as a body of people all in need of forgiveness, all desiring to be reconciled with each other and to pray for each other's reconciliation. In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, this ancient practice is echoed in the still-current way of making a confession privately to a priest during the liturgy, off to the side of the chancel area, but still in a semi-public location.

The significance of confession for ancient Christianity was deeply connected to baptism. When one became a part of Christ's body through birth in the font and receiving the Holy Spirit in anointing, the Christian was no longer an alienated individual, but a person in the deepest sense: one who was now in a restored relationship with God the Holy Trinity, the Creation, the  neighbor, and the true self in Christ. Sin after baptism damages the health of this "spiritual organism," requiring healing to repair the damage done to this loving communion. Thus, confession's true meaning is connected to the healing ministry of Christ seen in the Gospels and lived out in the Church's continual offering of pastoral care, intercession, and reconciliation.

In the Western part of the Church, confession of sins was gradually removed to the privacy of a meeting between the penitent and the confessor at a time outside of the public conduct of the Liturgy, though often in the church building itself. This was accompanied by a change in expressed character. Now confession came to have a judicial character, based on the image of the Last Judgment in the Gospels and the Book of Revelation. Slowly and at times imperceptibly, the priest moved from being a physician of the soul to a deputy judge. The entire nature of confession became a type of transaction: I commit this infraction against the Church's "code of legal conduct" and must pay the prescribed penalty through a penance imposed by a spiritual bureaucrat. Once this was done, one could feel "justified" and then make a "worthy" communion or (more importantly) be "properly" prepared to die and meet the criteria for escaping damnation. All this undermined the deep connection with baptism or the profound personal encounter between one in need of healing and the Church's mission of healing.

By the time of the Reformation, this transition in the nature of confession had become so complete that many saw it not as a way back to God through repentance and spiritual healing, but as an obstacle to God.  Many reformers sought to bring confession back to its origins (confession to the entire assembly, or, more commonly, private confession within the assembly gathered for worship). Private sacramental confession was largely stripped from the life of the Reformed tradition in Christianity.

But, in the Anglican tradition, a curious thing occurred. While the stand-alone rite of sacramental confession was removed and largely replaced with a general confession in most services, it did survive in one particular context: the service of healing (then called "The Visitation of the Sick"). Indeed, in this service, a great deal of effort was put into a thorough examination of one's faith and practice. Everything from a recommitment to basic baptismal faith (the Apostles' Creed was reaffirmed), to forgiveness of those with whom the sick person was at enmity, to the right use of one's possessions and wealth (with emphasis on giving to the poor and needy) was covered in detail. 

Thus, in Anglicanism the long process of returning confession to its origins as baptismal healing--not judicial retribution--had begun.

While this service was intended for use in cases of serious sickness (remembering that, in times past, many sicknesses fell into this category), some clergy used it more liberally, seeing it as an excellent means of periodic examination of conscience for members of the Church, especially in Lent. Indeed, there exist records of some Anglican bishops growing concerned that certain priests were using this rite rather too liberally...perhaps dangerously akin to the Roman Catholic practice of confession! Oddly enough, the "official" emphasis in Anglicanism, for all of its reformed intent, continued the medieval coupling of confession and absolution before death so that the individual Christian could face God's judgment with hope and a clear conscience.

In the nineteenth century, straightforward sacramental confession reappeared in the Anglican tradition for the first time since the Reformation. Though not expressly permitted by the Prayer Book, its practice gradually blossomed in many parishes, monastic communities, and other settings. This meant that confession was no longer directly linked to sickness and death—a good thing for the wider pastoral ministry of the Church. But, it also meant that the model most at hand used at the time of this renewal was the juridical view of confession then current in nineteenth century Roman Catholicism.

This colored the view of sacramental confession in Anglicanism—partly because of anti-Roman Catholic bigotry, but also out of a deep concern that the obstructive mechanism of medieval “Penance” would undermine the "blessed liberty wherewith Christ has made us free" so valued by Anglicans. While Roman Catholicism had produced many clergy with a distinctly deeper, broader, and more holistic view of confession (e.g. the CurĂ© d'Ars), the prevailing view remained transactional, with the priest very much understood as judge rather than witness, representative of the Body, or spiritual physician.

As the twentieth century wore on the careful study of the Early Church and the confession practices of the Eastern Orthodox churches began to have an impact on Roman Catholic and Anglican views of sacramental confession. Eventually, the Second Vatican Council and various Anglican synods, councils, and conventions began to reform the confession rites so that the focus moved from transaction or judgment to healing and reconciliation with baptismal identity. When the Episcopal Church put forth its new Book of Common Prayer in 1976/79, it added back (for the first time since the Reformation) a separate liturgy of sacramental confession…now called “The Reconciliation of a Penitent.”

When it did so, it acknowledged the two currents that remain in the Anglican tradition with regard to this sacramental rite by having two different forms for Reconciliation. While sacramentally the same, they differ in tone and spiritual emphasis.

The first form is very much in the style of classic Western confessional services: the penitent asks for a blessing to make a true and worthy confession and receives this blessing from the confessor. The confession is made (being clear that it is to God and “the whole Church” through the ministry of the confessor), opportunity for counsel, direction, and comfort provided for, and then absolution given (with two optional forms of absolution provided…one being the classic “I absolve you of your sins” in the name of Christ, the other emphasizing Christ’s forgiveness first, through the ministry of the confessor). Short and to-the-point but also powerful and clear: sins are forgiven by God so that we may return to fullness of life in Christ in this world and the next.

The second form is longer, more deeply connected to the rest of the Sacraments, more Scripturally-focussed, and more clearly grounded in the concept of baptismal reconciliation and spiritual healing. It begins with the confessor and penitent both praying a portion of Psalm 51 (the great psalm of penitence), and saying together the ancient hymn of praise called the “Trisagion,” or “Thrice holy hymn.” This establishes the truth that confession is a liturgy of the Church, not a private “spiritual transaction,” and that confessor and the penitent are both members of the Laos or People of God—not members of two different “castes” of Christians, one judging the other.

The second form continues with the penitent asking for and receiving a blessing to make a true and honest confession, followed by a series of passages from Holy Scripture long used by Anglicans to give assurance of God’s desire for our reconciliation and redemption. Thus assured and encouraged by the confessor (who is a fellow Christian with a special calling and grace to minister God’s forgiveness), the penitent proceeds to offer a beautiful prayer recounting God’s gifts of creation, redemption, and baptism—and, the fact that we have misused these gifts through sin, using the language of Christ’s parable of the Prodigal about “wondering in a land that is waste.”

The prayer may begin more on the general level, but moves to the specific when the penitent adds his or her own personal sins to this prayer. Following these specific sins, the prayer recognizes that we are confessing not only the sins we can remember, but all of the involuntary sins, or those we have forgotten, and so opening our entire selves to God, holding nothing back in this encounter and fully expecting total forgiveness—such is the radical nature of this sacramental experience. The prayer comes to a close with a plea for restoration to the full life of the Church—full realization of the personal life of faith, where relationship with God, neighbor, and the true self-in-God may occur.

The confessor then is given opportunity to provide counsel or guidance as part of this ministry of healing. This is often where the Anglican emphasis on pastoral care, fitted to the individual, is found.

The second form of Reconciliation then proceeds to ask two important questions, both of which  relate to the baptismal liturgy and point directly to the restoration of the penitent to baptismal grace and the full life of the Church: “Will you turn again to Christ as your Lord?” and “Do you, then, forgive those who have sinned against you?” Once more, we see here the truth of sacramental confession as something far deeper than mere satisfaction of an exterior code or set of rules: this is about restoration to the active and healed life of the organism of the Church, the Body of Christ and all its members. This is a dynamic sacramentality.

Only now, with a full reaffirmation by the penitent of a desire for communion with “that life which alone is Life,” and thus refuting the deforming and false logic of sin and its spurious promise of salvation through autonomy, does the confessor pronounce Christ’s absolution and restoration to "the perfect peace of the Church.” That which was put out of joint, cut off, alienated, has now been re-joined fully to the Body which is truly alive, resurrected, and partaker of the Divine Nature.

Having gained this moment of spiritual revivification, the confessor recalls once more the story of the Prodigal, but now with its ringing affirmation of restoration through this triumphal “welcome home” from the Father:
Now there is rejoicing in heaven; for you were lost, and are found; you were dead, and are now alive in Christ Jesus our Lord.  Go in peace.  The Lord has put away all your sins.
To which the penitent-now-restored gives the response provided at the end of the Eucharist—to the fullness of which he or she is now brought back: “Thanks be to God.” All has been healed and all sin forgiven; the long-awaited Lost One has returned, and the all the Church throughout the ages rejoices before God the Holy Trinity.

*  *  *

And so, this long reflection on the history of sacramental confession brings us back to where we began: with Christ’s commission to the Church to continue his work of reconciliation-- confronting sin amongst his members not with judicial legalism but with a profound thirst for our return, our restoration to the truth of personal communion given at baptism.

What had become distorted through history and a cooling of human hearts has been set right by God’s grace in the Church so that a means of healing for wounds and sins perhaps not visible but nonetheless very real might be made available to the Faithful. Now it is time for more Episcopal parishes to make sacramental confession regularly available to their people, that this gift might be once more part of the common (shared) life of the community--not an adjunct or "extra" sought out by only a few and really understood by even fewer.

It is this hopeful, healing, and joyful understanding of sacramental confession that is found in the Episcopal Church's Book of Common Prayer, and is offered regularly at St. Timothy’s throughout the year—and especially in the holy season of Lent.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

How to Keep a Holy Lent: St. Peter Chrysologus

This ancient sermon is a splendid introduction to Lent. It is a simple and easily-digested guide to the practical aspects of living out the three great disciplines of the season: prayer, fasting, and works of mercy. St. Peter Chrysologus (the "Golden-worded") was a master of short, effective communication of basic Christian faith and practice.

Christians must come to see Lent as a season of profound love, of a deepening joy in God through an ever-greater conversion to the Gospel way of life. Each Lent is a new and more profound encounter with Christ. Each Lent we hear once more the words of hope extended to us who have wandered from God and from our true, authentic selves in God. Each Lent we are given the opportunity to grow in a personal authenticity by becoming more like Christ: compassionate, human, holy, and at peace with His heavenly Father.

Prayer, fasting, and works of mercy are commanded by Christ. They are each essential marks of a Christian life. Holy Lent is the season above all others when we are refreshed in this truth, and as such, we are refreshed in the truth about God and ourselves. Only by living in this truth may we approach Holy Week and Easter with softened, opened, and transformed hearts.

A Holy Lent to all of you!

From a homily by St. Peter Chrysologus, Bishop of Ravenna (406-450 A.D.)

There are three things, my brethren, by which faith stands firm, devotion remains constant, and virtue endures. They are prayer, fasting and mercy. Prayer knocks at the door, fasting obtains, mercy receives. Prayer, mercy and fasting: these three are one, and they give life to each other.

           Fasting is the soul of prayer, mercy is the lifeblood of fasting. Let no one try to separate them; they cannot be separated. If you have only one of them or not all together, you have nothing. So if you pray, fast; if you fast, show mercy; if you want your petition to be heard, hear the petition of others. If you do not close your ear to others you open God’s ear to yourself.

           When you fast, see the fasting of others. If you want God to know that you are hungry, know that another is hungry. If you hope for mercy, show mercy. If you look for kindness, show kindness. If you want to receive, give. If you ask for yourself what you deny to others, your asking is a mockery.

Let this be the pattern for all men when they practise mercy: show mercy to others in the same way, with the same generosity, with the same promptness, as you want others to show mercy to you.

           Therefore, let prayer, mercy and fasting be one single plea to God on our behalf, one speech in our defence, a threefold united prayer in our favour.

           Let us use fasting to make up for what we have lost by despising others. Let us offer our souls in sacrifice by means of fasting. There is nothing more pleasing that we can offer to God, as the psalmist said in prophecy: A sacrifice to God is a broken spirit; God does not despise a bruised and humbled heart.

           Offer your soul to God, make him an oblation of your fasting, so that your soul may be a pure offering, a holy sacrifice, a living victim, remaining your own and at the same time made over to God. Whoever fails to give this to God will not be excused, for if you are to give him yourself you are never without the means of giving.

           To make these acceptable, mercy must be added. Fasting bears no fruit unless it is watered by mercy. Fasting dries up when mercy dries up. Mercy is to fasting as rain is to earth. However much you may cultivate your heart, clear the soil of your nature, root out vices, sow virtues, if you do not release the springs of mercy, your fasting will bear no fruit.

           When you fast, if your mercy is thin your harvest will be thin; when you fast, what you pour out in mercy overflows into your barn. Therefore, do not lose by saving, but gather in by scattering. Give to the poor, and you give to yourself. You will not be allowed to keep what you have refused to give to others.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

On the Feast of the Presentation

Today is one of the Feasts of Our Lord, a day of rejoicing that Christ has come into the Temple to be presented, in accordance with the Law of Moses, to His Father. The story is found in Luke 2: 22-40.

This is a day of extraordinary beauty. In it is fulfilled the yearning of an entire people…though secretly, quietly, gently. The ancient Temple has its true purpose revealed and completed: the presence of God in this Holy Place is now complete, and the hostility between humanity and God is being overcome by God's own initiative

Mary and Joseph witness in awe and wonder the meaning of this moment, treasuring it in their hearts as will all future disciples of Christ. A prophesy of struggle and suffering for Mary is pronounced, something true for her in a unique way, but also a fact for anyone who follows Christ and the Gospel Way authentically.

Yet, there is more. Aged Simeon holds the child who is his Messiah in his own arms, bringing age, infancy, and eternity together. Anna—another aged prophetess—so rejoices at the Messiah’s coming that all around her take note in her delight. It is a day marked by joy, a joy much like that of the Day of Resurrection which it prefigures.

Each person who confesses Christ is fundamentally alive in this joy. It is a mark of true discipleship. Young and old, insightful and simple, mystical and practical: we all share in the light of Christ’s presence. That presence transforms and fulfills us in ways we cannot comprehend or imagine. It reaches through us into the lives and needs of others. “The light has come into the world, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

For centuries, it has been the custom of those celebrating this feast to bear small lamps or candles to recall this light of Christ come into the world—and especially the Holy Spirit given to us (much like Simeon). At Holy Baptism, a candle is presented to the newly-baptized (or a sponsor) to remind all present that this light is conferred and must be cherished.

Do we consciously bear Christ’s Light? Do we honor it? Do we see it as the one true gift—quite apart from our opinions, agendas, experiences, and goals—we have to give? Let us pray that this is so for us. To substitute something else for this light is to turn our back on the Savior, and to close the door on the mystery and power of the events celebrated on this beautiful day.

Rejoice with the Blessed Virgin, with St. Joseph, with aged Anna and Simeon on this day…and share the light given to you long after the candle you bear is extinguished!

A reading from a sermon by Sophronius, Patriarch of Jerusalem (7th Century)

Our lighted candles are a sign of the divine splendor of the one who comes to expel the dark shadows of evil and to make the whole universe radiant with the brilliance of his eternal light. Our candles also show how bright our souls should be when we go to meet Christ.

The Mother of God, the most pure Virgin, carried the true light in her arms and brought him to those who lay in darkness. We too should carry a light for all to see and reflect the radiance of the true light as we hasten to meet him.

The light has come and has shone upon a world enveloped in shadows; the Dayspring from on high has visited us and given light to those who lived in darkness. This, then, is our feast, and we join in procession with lighted candles to reveal the light that has shone upon us and the glory that is yet to come to us through him. So let us hasten all together to meet our God.

The true light has come, the light that enlightens every man who is born into this world. Let all of us, my brethren, be enlightened and made radiant by this light. Let all of us share in its splendor, and be so filled with it that no one remains in the darkness. Let us be shining ourselves as we go together to meet and to receive with the aged Simeon the light whose brilliance is eternal. Rejoicing with Simeon, let us sing a hymn of thanksgiving to God, the Father of the light, who sent the true light to dispel the darkness and to give us all a share in his splendor.

Through Simeon’s eyes we too have seen the salvation of God which he prepared for all the nations and revealed as the glory of the new Israel, which is ourselves. As Simeon was released from the bonds of this life when he had seen Christ, so we too were at once freed from our old state of sinfulness.

By faith we too embraced Christ, the salvation of God the Father, as he came to us from Bethlehem. Gentiles before, we have now become the people of God. Our eyes have seen God incarnate, and because we have seen him present among us and have mentally received him into our arms, we are called the new Israel. Never shall we forget this presence; every year we keep a feast in his honor.

Collect for the Feast of the Presentation

Almighty and everliving God, we humbly pray that, as your only-begotten Son was this day presented in the temple, so we may be presented to you with pure and clean hearts by Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.